The dairy dilemma: lactose intolerance in the Netherlands

Being lactose intolerant in the Netherlands is immoral. It is a crime against culture, a sign of evil and completely socially unacceptable. And, sometimes, it can be plain impossible!

Well at least it seems so at first.

I recently moved to the Netherlands with my mind filled with idealistic images. I saw myself frolicking through tulip fields in clogs, cycling past windmills and sailing through cosy canals.

But something was lurking in the corners of my Dutch life fantasies. Something creamy. Something that sprinkles perfectly over pasta. Something that can be matched perfectly with a nice bottle of red wine.

That something was cheese.

Lactose Intolerant in the Netherlands: The Cheese Challenge

Dutch people are, in general, very proud people. They are proud of their culture, proud of their great artists, proud of their language and proud of their cheese. As they should be!

Dutch people also like to ‘say it how it is’. You can trust a Dutch person to be straightforward and let you know when something irritates them.

Mmm, looks delicious. But your stomach won’t be thanking you for it. Image: Unsplash

I learnt quite quickly that lactose intolerance irritates people. A lot.

To understand the Dutch inability to accept lactose intolerance, you have to be aware that Dutch people have the lowest lactose intolerance rates in the world.

Just 3% of the nation has a biologically bad relationship with the primary ingredient of the nation’s favourite food. Dutch people live and breathe dairy, and many believe it is the cause of their claim to fame as the tallest people in the world.

A dairy way of life

Dairy is not just a food group in The Netherlands — it is a way of life. Dutch people love the stuff. Every kitchen I have entered in the country has a cheese cutter alongside knives and forks. Grown men in offices wearing suits slurp on glasses of milk with their lunch, and the cheese aisle in the supermarket might as well be a nation of its own.

How can you possibly try and integrate into a country where you are biologically incapable of the most fundamental lifestyle element of all? How can you possibly live dairy free in a land of milk-sipping giants?

Upon arrival to the Netherlands, you might find yourself wondering… why the cheese? Image: Unsplash

Dairy is the way to a Dutch person’s heart, and without the digestive capacity to bond over a nice piece of gouda, my love life is certainly suffering.

I have attempted to find Dutch culinary alternatives but it is not quite as romantic to flirt while sliding a slippery raw herring into your mouth…

Lactose Intolerant in the Netherlands: a way out?

But fellow lactose-intolerantees bound for the Netherlands, do not fear!

There is one big benefit to your dairy-free dilemma. It is the perfect excuse to skip one of the most ridiculous meals of the day.

READ MORE | Veganism in the Netherlands: here’s why it’s achievable

Most of the world knows that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but from watching my housemates start the day with chocolate sprinkles on toast, I think the Netherlands missed the ‘breakfast of champions’ memo. 🏆

Dessert snack or… breakfast? The Dutch love to get those confused. Image: Amin/Wikimedia Commons/CC 4.0

I’m not joking. Fully grown adults do this here. It’s completely normal and called hagelslag. It looks like the kind of snack you would serve at a children’s party where I’m from, but hey — I’m lactose intolerant, so it’s not my problem.

Have you experienced these problems being lactose-free in the Netherlands? Tell us in a comment below! 👇

This article was originally published in August 2016, and was fully updated in May 2023 for your reading pleasure.

Feature Image:Unsplash

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  1. Oh man this article got me a little worried. If they have a problem with lactose intolerant people, how would they deal with someone refusing a meal for being a vegan? :c

    • Don’t worry about it too much, we’re honestly really warm and accepting people. This article might be a bit of an exaggeration to be honest, we indeed do love our cheese and our toast with “hagelslag” paired with a glass of milk for breakfast, but it really isn’t as bad as they make it sound:)
      We are very down to earth, hospitable people and are not nose deep in anyone else’s business. But as soon as someone needs our help, doesn’t matter in what kind of situation, the majority of us will kindly offer you the things you need.

      So overall, if you ever plan on coming to the Netherlands don’t worry about us having a problem with for example vegans, vegetarians or people that are lactose intolerant. There are plenty of substitutes and it’s most definitely not frowned upon!

  2. Nearly all hard or aged cheeses (including Dutch cheeses) do NOT contain lactose. 98% of the lactose is drained out with the whey and the remaining 2% is consumed in the fermentation process.
    There are many options for those who are lactose intolerant and that includes a good range of lactose free (not to be confused with soy) dairy products, chocolate spreads, etc.
    Also, not every Dutch family has chocolate sprinkles included in their breakfast routine, similar to the UK. Not everyone has a full English for breakfast!
    This Dutch mum of a child with a severe lactose intolerance does not see the challenge or dilemma.

  3. I wonder if this article has been written a little “tongue in cheek”?
    Firstly let me say that I moved here from Australia in 2014.
    Yes, the Dutch people are very proud of a lot of things and rightly so! One thing that they
    can be proud of is how tolerant of, and helpful to, people from other countries and cultures.
    The average Dutch man/woman/child in the street may seem to not want anything to do
    with us, but that’s not how it is. They simply mind their own business until they are either
    approached for help or it is obvious that someone is needing help. It has been my
    experience that the Dutch are very kind and understanding about most things, and a lot
    of what is written has been for comedic effect or to enhance the story of the people telling
    If you are lactose intolerant, simply go to a cheese shop (there are many) or delicatessen and
    ask for help. Before you come to The Netherlands, do your homework and find out via the internet
    what is available. Make an appointment with a huisarts (Doctor) when you are here, if it is for an extended period, and he/she will be most willing to help you or direct you to someone who can.
    It has also been my experience that Dutch people eat just as normally or otherwise as any other culture. For breakfast, some have the meal mentioned above, some have museli, fruit, yoghurt, toasted bread, fresh bread, eggs, ham, mushrooms, tomatoes, or whatever, just as we do in Australia, England or France. Some people are healthy, some are not. Just as we are or not in other countries. Use your common sense and don’t believe silly, exaggerated articles and make fun of others, particularly when they really are kind and helpful, if respected.

  4. It’s been a decade since there’s lactose-free milk in the supermarket, and now there’s other products as well. And yeah you can avoid lactose without seeming impolite.
    I know this article is exaggerating, but it’s also pointing at a cultural particularity, the one where you’re supposed to behave “normally” and therefore not complain about stuff that people shouldn’t complain about. Like lactose.
    And it’s funny!

  5. I am lactose free and gluten free and it’s really difficult in the Netherlands. Ten years ago you couldn’t find milk alternatives. At least today you can. I am always shocked to go into a cafe for a cup of coffee in a city, The Hague, Leiden, etc and they don’t have any milk alternatives. It’s too easy today to have something. Having nothing is very frustrating. The options in the grocery stores are extremely limited to what you find in US grocery stores. It’s getting a bit better all the time and I appreciate that. I appreciate the comment about the amount of lactose in some cheeses, but I won’t eat cheese because I know what it does to my body and I don’t want to go there. I do appreciate and LOVE the amount of vegan restaurants that are popping up. If you go to Arnhem you have to go to Konijnenvoer. It’s the best vegan restaurant I have ever been to anywhere. The food is brilliant.


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