The Conundrum of South Asian Lactose Intolerance

South Asian nations are leading producers and consumers of milk — so why are so many of us lactose intolerant?

Ishani Nath

September 7, 2022

The Conundrum of South Asian Lactose Intolerance
A bronze cup of dahi (Getty)

When the pandit poured milk into Sabrina Persaud’s cupped palm, “the fear of God was inside me,” she recalled. In the past, she had thrown the milk over her hair rather than drink it, but this time, everyone was watching. This Ganesh puja was for her, a blessing the day before her wedding. The problem was that she is lactose intolerant, making the auspicious prasad risky. 

Lactose is the sugar that exists in milk and milk products. Individuals who are lactose intolerant, like Persaud, can’t properly digest lactose and end up getting symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, gas, or diarrhea after consuming dairy. Persaud had grown up getting stomach aches after eating ice cream and even had to leave a date early because of a milky cappuccino. “I wish they could use almond milk for these pujas,” she said, thinking back, but the pandit had refused. She had no other option. She drank the milk and, right on cue, she ended up sick that evening. 

The experience is more common among South Asians than many realize. Approximately 61% of India, 58% of Pakistan, 73% of Sri Lanka, and nearly all of Myanmar (92%) is lactose intolerant. The stats are shocking because, unlike East Asian regions — which also have high rates of lactose intolerance — dairy is a cornerstone for many South Asian cuisines, histories, and economies.