Dairy products, including cow milk, cheese, and yoghurt, have long been advertised as health-promoting, particularly for “healthy bones and teeth”. 

However, the promotion of dairy as a health food is problematic not simply as a general falsehood, but also because many marginalized ethnic groups experience lactose intolerance, which makes them highly susceptible to ill-health following dairy consumption.

Lactose intolerance occurs when an individual does not produce the enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest milk sugar (lactose). While human babies are born with this ability, necessary to digest the sugar in breast milk, we naturally lose this ability as we wean, anywhere from 2-5 years of age. 

Lactose intolerance is thought to be most prevalent in people of Asian or African descent, with prevalence estimates as high as 70 to 100%. By contrast, in Northern European communities, lactose intolerance is estimated at around 5%.

The widespread and unequivocal promotion of dairy as a health-promoting food has disproportionate health impacts on Asian and African communities. Gastrointestinal distress is common in lactose intolerant people who consume dairy, with symptoms including gas, bloating, and diarrhea. 

Ongoing dairy consumption despite lactose intolerance is likely to cause disruptions to healthy gut flora, due to the presence of undigested lactose fermenting as it passes through the colon. Dysbiosis and imbalances in the microbiome are linked to a number of health issues including inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal cancer, lowered immunity, and psychological symptoms including depression and anxiety. Considering that communities with the highest rates of lactose intolerance are also likely to experience inequitable access to healthcare and treatment, the promotion of dairy as a health food is not only a falsehood but also a form of dietary racism.