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Are you Dairy Sensitive or Lactose Intolerant? What’s the Difference?

With it being Food Sensitivity Week, let’s talk a bit about a common dietary sensitivity that is often not well understood.

Symptoms of a food sensitivity include, but are not limited to, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, skin rashes, headaches, fatigue, runny nose, allergy-like symptoms, and joint pain.

Because cow’s milk is such a widely consumed food in today’s Western diet, it can often be difficult to determine what exactly is causing a food sensitivity symptom. Cow’s milk can be found in everything from dairy products (yogurt, cheese, milk, and cream) to baked goods, candy, coffee drinks, butter, ice cream, many protein powder supplements, and more.

Individuals that find they cannot tolerate dairy-based foods may often assume they are lactose intolerant, however, dairy sensitivity may be just as common of a condition.

What is Dairy Sensitivity?

Dairy sensitivity is an immune response to one or more protein-based components of cow’s milk. A dairy sensitivity involves one’s immune system recognizing peptides (smaller protein fragments) from cow’s milk as ‘foreign invaders’ and generating an inflammatory response to those peptides.



The inflammatory response generated can range from intestinal barrier inflammation and digestive discomfort, to skin rashes such as eczema, or even autoimmune destruction of pancreatic cells1 or cells in the cerebellum2 (of the brain), leading to higher risk for Type 1 diabetes or neurological autoimmunity, respectively.

What is Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is a condition in which the affected individual does not possess adequate digestive enzymes called lactases to digest the sugar component of cow’s milk, called lactose. In these individuals, diarrhea, gas, and abdominal cramping is common immediately following consumption of a milk-based food.

There is no involvement of the immune system in lactose intolerance, and no antibodies to the cow’s milk protein are produced, therefore, no inflammatory response is present. Therefore, usually there are also no symptoms that present outside the gastrointestinal tract, such as skin rashes or headaches.

Individuals with lactose intolerance can take special digestive enzymes with meals containing cow’s milk-based foods and experience little to no discomfort from eating those foods.

Some individuals with dairy sensitivities do not experience symptoms outside the GI tract, though, and it can often be difficult to tell if one is dairy sensitive, meaning they should not consume dairy at all, even with digestive enzymes, or just lactose intolerant.

How can you tell if you just have lactose intolerance, or possibly something more complex or serious?

Up until now, there were little to no testing options to differentiate between immune reactions to dairy peptides and conditions that just make it harder for us to digest dairy-based foods.

Vibrant is excited about the upcoming release of its Dairy Zoomer test that will be able to differentiate between multiple peptide fragments in cow’s milk in the most comprehensive, sensitive, and specific test to be created to detect dairy sensitivity and its possible connections to inflammatory disorders to date.

Look for more information about the Dairy Zoomer in May!



Clinical Education and Marketing Liaison


[1] Adler K, Mueller DB, Achenbach P, et al. Insulin autoantibodies with high affinity to the bovine milk protein alpha casein. Clinical and Experimental Immunology. 2011;164(1):42-49.

2 Guggenmos J1, Schubart AS, Ogg S, Andersson M, Olsson T, Mather IH, Linington C. Antibody cross-reactivity between myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein and the milk protein butyrophilin in multiple sclerosis. J Immunol. 2004;172(1):661-8.