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A Study in Milk

As the joke goes, foreigners can feel truly at home in Finland once they have contracted local ailments and allergies, such as lactose intolerance. Dispelling the myth, facts indicate that foreigners do not develop lactose intolerance in Finland as much as discover it.

iso maitolasi, jonka takana ruokailija
Image: Olli Koski / YLE

The image of Finland as a country cursed with lactose intolerance is surprisingly popular. This might be because of the wide variety of low-lactose or lactose-free products available in Finnish shops. Restaurant menus, meticulous in pointing out the lactose-free dishes, might also give pause. Foreigners arriving in Finland quite often marvel at the proportion of the Finnish population that surely has to be lactose intolerant in order to require all these provisions.

Also, some foreigners find themselves lactose intolerant here.

Angelina Santana has never had trouble with milk in her native Mexico, but she has learnt to embrace low-lactose products in Finland.

“At first, I didn’t know what was wrong, but then I started to notice that I was always bad with my stomach after drinking some milk,” she says. “Then I changed to these HYLA products, and my stomach was totally okay. Then I tried normal products again, and it was bad again.”

Angelina is not alone. Among her friends, several other foreigners — hailing from Germany, Russia, Thailand — have developed the same ailment. They cannot help but wonder why.

Lactose for the layman

In practical terms, intolerance to lactose means an inability to digest a key component in milk.

“Lactose is a disaccharide and consists of two monosaccharides, glucose and galactose,” explains Merja Paturi from the Nutrition Unit at the National Institute for Health and Welfare. “A person needs a lactase enzyme in the gut to be able to digest glucose and galactose. If the person is missing the lactase enzyme, the whole lactose disaccharide sugar is going to the intestinal area. What follows is diarrhoea and gas problems.”

Statistics are absent on the number of foreigners who were perfectly happy drinking milk in their home country and go for the lactose-free variety after a few years in Finland. However, it is known that 17 percent of Finns are lactose intolerant.

This is higher than in neighbouring Sweden or in Britain, where figures stand at about six and ten percent respectively. On the other hand, the Finnish statistics fade when compared with Thailand, where over 90 percent of the adult population cannot digest lactose. A drastic increase is also detectible closer to home, in southern Europe, where over 60 percent of Italians are lactose intolerant.

Historical reasons account for regional variation.

Nutritionist Marika Laaksonen from the Finnish milk industry giant Valio explains:

“Genetic studies show that, when people settled in northern countries and milk started to be very important for their survival, it gradually happened that most adult people became able to digest lactose, even though originally the activity of lactase enzyme decreased already after weaning in early childhood.”

Northern Europeans were not by nature meant to drink as much milk as they did. So their genetic build-up underwent a series of changes that allowed them to tolerate lactose into adulthood. In some people — often from other regions — this trait is absent.

Experts agree: genetics are responsible for lactose intolerance. This would indicate that the people who have developed lactose intolerance in Finland were in fact intolerant already. They just didn’t know about it.

Why Finland?

“I think the main reason is that we consume so much dairy products here in Finland that it comes up that a person has lactose intolerance,” says nutritionist Anne Pohju from the Finnish Dairy Nutrition Council. “We drink milk here on par with any normal drink, and it’s not the norm in other countries.”

It is certainly true that Finns drink a lot of milk: the Dairy Nutrition Council says the average Finn consumes nearly 140 litres of milk a year. Milk is a standard drink to take with breakfast, lunch or dinner, which is indeed a facet of food culture that sets Finland apart.

“I never took my meals with milk before, only when I was a child,” says Angelina Santana. “But here, even though you’re at university, you can drink milk with your food all the time.”

She also points out that milk products are healthy, affordable and come in a wide variety in Finland. Shops offer milk, sour cream, buttermilk, different types of quarks, yoghurts. Milk products became an important part of Angelina’s diet.

This might also be true of other foreigners. Those with the genetic predisposition to be lactose intolerant might have, with time, reached a certain saturation point beyond which they could drink normal milk no longer.

No ready answers

However, experts stress the need to stay away from sweeping generalisations.

“Lactose intolerance in a genetic characteristic which has several levels of sensitivity,” says Pia Kontunen, Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications at Valio. “Some people react to very small amounts of lactose, some can take in more.”

This is not even taking into account the fact that — coming back to the original point — lactose intolerance has become hyped up in Finland. In case of a stomach problem, people might just assume lactose is the culprit.

“Finnish people know a lot about lactose intolerance and often that’s the first thing that occurs to them,” Marika Laaksonen says.

However, even if lactose intolerance is revealed by medical tests, easy answers are still not forthcoming. Every person’s relationship with lactose is unique.

“It’s not a hundred percent certain that, if you get the test result of having intolerance, you wouldn’t be able to drink milk with lactose,” Laaksonen elaborates. “It’s very individual how it occurs and how you feel what’s happening in your intestines, what is the bacteria composition in the gut and what other ingredients you have in your diet.”

Lactose intolerance might or might not emerge out of the tug-of-war between individual traits, diet and genetics. Finland has a slew of low-lactose and lactose-free products on offer in case it does — but certainly not with the expectation that it must.

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