Low-lactose and lactose-free foods

Low-lactose and lactose-free foods are intended to persons for whom lactose causes stomach discomfort. Lactose is naturally only found in milk. If milk or milk products are used in the manufacture of a food product, the product will also contain lactose. In low-lactose foods the lactose has been broken down into glucose and galactose, which cause the sweetness of low-lactose products. Lactose-free products are products from which part of the lactose contained in milk is removed completely and the rest of the lactose is broken down enzymatically.

Lactose intolerance

When people suffer from lactose intolerance, the enzyme that breaks down lactose is missing or present in too low levels in their small intestines. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include stomach rumbling and bloating, flatulence, stomach cramps and diarrhea. Tolerance to lactose varies; most lactose intolerant people can tolerate lactose in small quantities (5 – 10 g at a time) while very small quantities (1 – 2 g of lactose) will cause symptoms in other people. A glass of ordinary milk contains 10 g of lactose and a glass of low-lactose milk 2 g of lactose.

It should be emphasised that milk allergy and lactose intolerance are not the same thing. Milk allergy refers to the body reacting to the proteins contained in milk, while lactose intolerance is an inability to absorb lactose. More information about the differences between milk allergy and lactose intolerance is provided on our web site at https://www.evira.fi/elintarvikkeet/tietoa-elintarvikkeista/ruoka-allergeenit/yleisimmat-ruoka-allergian-aiheuttajat/maito/, (in Finnish).


Provisions regarding low-lactose and lactose-free foods are stipulated in the Decree of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry on Foods for Special Dietary Uses (121/2010). Information in Finnish about nutrition labelling for low-lactose and lactose-free foods can be found in Evira's guide 17030/1 ”Ravintoarvomerkintäopas elintarvikevalvojille ja elintarvikealan toimijoille” (Nutrition labelling guide for food control officers and food sector operators).

No common limit values have so far been defined at EU level for the lactose content of low-lactose and lactose-free food products. The following values have for quite some time been applied in Finland as Nordic limit values:

  • lactose-free foods – lactose content less than 10 mg/100 g or 100 ml
  • low-lactose foods – lactose content less than 1 g/100 g or 100 ml

The limit values are based on Nordic report ”Nordiske Seminar- og Arbejdsrapporter 1993:557 (Nordic Seminar and Working Reports). Evira advises compliance with these limit values until limit values are possibly stipulated at EU level.

The EU Directive on foodstuffs intended for particular nutritional uses (2009/39/EC) is at present being revised in its entirety and the Commission's proposal for a new directive is expected in 2011. As part of the revision work, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has at the invitation of the Commission issued a scientific opinion on lactose thresholds in lactose intolerance and galactosemia.

Notification procedure

When a low-lactose or lactose-free milk product is placed for the first time on the market in Finland, the manufacturer or the importer must submit a notification of this to the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira. If a low-lactose or lactose-free product has been placed for the first time on the market in some other EU state, the manufacturer or the importer shall submit to Evira information about the content of the original notification and where it has been submitted.

More information about the notification procedure is provided on the web site "notification of placing a foodstuff for particular nutritional use on the market".


  • Dietary treatment of lactose intolerance – nutrition therapists in health care centres and hospital districts, and general practitioners