'Anti-chocolate gene' can ruin Easter treats, geneticist warns

suspicious african american woman looking at easter egg in studio shot. holiday, easter, celebration concept.
Milk chocolate during the Easter period could lead to some upset tummies for people with the lactose intolerance gene. (Getty Images)

Indulging in Easter chocolate is one of the best things about the holiday. However, if you’re unlucky enough to carry a specific gene, milk chocolate is not going to be your friend.

A geneticist has warned that an estimated five million Britons could be impacted by an “anti-chocolate gene” that could ruin Easter chocolate treats because it causes lactose intolerance.

Lactose intolerance is caused by a variation in the MCM6 gene that affects the activity of lactase, which in turn affects the body’s ability to break down lactose, explains Dr Yiannis Mavrommatis, a nutrigenetics expert at MyHealthChecked.

“Biologically, lactose intolerance is the norm: lactase activity is high during infancy when milk is the only source of nutrients but it drops progressively as we age.”

Over Easter, between 80 to 90 million chocolate eggs are sold in the UK every year, with British consumers spending more than £400 million on the chocolatey treats annually.

The vast majority of chocolate eggs are milk chocolate, containing the legally required minimum amount of 20% cocoa solids and 20% milk solids.

In the UK, around one in every 10 older children and adults are thought to have lactose intolerance, according to Bupa - which makes eating milk chocolate an uncomfortable experience that many people would rather avoid.

Common symptoms of lactose intolerance include diarrhoea, bloating, nausea, and flatulence after consuming dairy. But Dr Mavrommatis adds that it might surprise people to know just how common it is that people develop lactose intolerance later in life.

This is because the “activity of the enzyme lactase decreases during our lifetime”. You can find out if you carry the lactose intolerance gene MCM6 when you take a food intolerance test, which tells you if you have gene mutations linked to it.

“The severity of intolerance symptoms is usually proportional to the amount of dairy consumed. Some people who are lactose intolerant may be able to consume small amounts of dairy without any noticeable symptoms,” Dr Mavrommatis says.

How can I enjoy Easter chocolate when I’m lactose intolerant?

Shot of unhealthy young woman with stomachache leaning on the couch in the living room at home.
Symptoms of lactose intolerance include diarrhoea, abdominal pain or bloating, and nausea. (Getty Images)

Don’t worry - all is not lost if you suffer from lactose intolerance but love chocolate. Isabela Ramos, nutritionist at MyHealthChecked, points towards chocolate products that contain minimal lactose like dark chocolate, which can be enjoyed by lactose intolerant individuals without the unpleasant effects.

“For someone who is lactose intolerant, they can focus on lactose-free or low-lactose alternatives for traditional Easter foods. This includes dairy-free chocolate eggs, vegan truffles, and sorbet or dairy-free ice cream,” she adds.

“To mitigate the effects of lactose intolerance, individuals can also try lactase enzyme supplements before consuming lactose-containing foods.”

Ramos also explains that maintaining good gut health can be key to helping you tolerate lactose better.

“A healthy and diverse gut microbiome is essential for optimal digestive function. By promoting a healthy gut environment, beneficial bacteria can improve overall digestive function, including the digestion of lactose.

“You can promote a healthy gut environment by having a variety of plants in your diet including: avocado, broccoli, kale, lentils, leeks, cabbage, nuts, and fruits such as blueberries, passion fruit and raspberries.”

Food intolerance or sensitivity tests have become increasingly popular over the years as a way for people to find out whether they should cut out certain foods that they feel aren’t good for them. Companies like MyHealthChecked offer kits that can be used at home, and require just a cheek swab that will be sent to a lab.

However, it’s important to note that food intolerance tests are not recommended as a diagnostic tool by the British Dietetics Association (BDA), the NHS or NICE.

The BDA recommends seeking medical advice if you think you may have a food allergy. You may be required to undergo conventional allergy testing, like a skin prick test, blood test, food challenges, and food exclusion and reintroduction.

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