Little Miss Muffet Sat on a tuffet
Eating her CASEIN and whey;
Along came a spider;
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
When you learned that nursery rhyme, Little Miss Muffet was probably busy eating her curds and whey. As a kid, I was never really sure what curds or whey were, but they certainly didn’t sound very appetizing. Nowadays we hear an awful lot about casein, especially when we talk about food allergies. So what exactly is all this stuff?
Have you ever tried to combine lemon juice, or any other acid, and milk? The milk will separate, resulting in coagulated bits of casein protein – the curds – and a leftover liquid part – the whey. This is caused by chemical reactions among the different types of protein in milk. It probably still doesn’t sound appetizing, but that’s how they make cottage cheese!
Like many other allergies, dairy allergies are caused by the body’s overreaction to certain proteins. There are dozens of proteins in milk, but the two most common allergy sources are casein and whey. The molecular structure of casein is actually very similar to gluten, so many people who are gluten intolerant benefit from a GFCF (gluten-free, casein-free) diet.
Whey protein causes fewer allergies than casein, but for those who are allergic, it can be a hidden danger because it is frequently dried into a powder and added to foods that wouldn’t normally contain dairy. The protein supplement pills you find at gyms and health food stores are often made of whey. It is possible to be allergic to casein but not whey or vice versa.
Lactose intolerance is something completely different. Someone who is lactose intolerant is missing the enzyme lactasewhich is required to digest the sugars in milk. Lactose intolerance is NOT an allergy. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. These symptoms are uncomfortable but not considered dangerous. However, continuously subjecting oneself to intestinal distress can create more serious problems.
Dairy allergies are far more dangerous. Symptoms can include hives, severe stomach pain, and difficulty breathing.
If you are lactose intolerant, there are many dairy products that you can eat freely - including lactose-free milk, cheese, and yogurt. If you are allergic to dairy, you need to stay away from all dairy and be vigilant about reading labels. And unless you know for sure which type of protein causes your allergy, keep away from anything that contains “casein” or “whey”.