At Lehrhaus in Somerville, Massachusetts, guests pass by an old-timey gumball dispenser on their way to the bathroom. Twenty-five cents and a turn of the knob will get you a clear plastic ball — holding not candy but an individually wrapped dose of Lactaid.
A self-described Jewish tavern and house of learning, Lehrhaus is also a kosher dairy restaurant, serving milk-based food but not meat. “Because we operate at the intersection of dairy, food, and Jews, and there’s a high propensity for lactose intolerance among Jews of European descent, Ashkenazi descent, there was talk from the start about having Lactaid available,” says Rabbi Charlie Schwartz, director of Lehrhaus. Installing the dispenser was a gesture toward “being helpful and a tongue-in-cheek nod to the ancestry of many of our patrons,” Schwartz explains. He notes that Mamaleh’s, a nearby Jewish deli, also sells Lactaid.
Anyone who relies on lactase enzyme tablets — a category that is to Lactaid what tissues are to Kleenex — will scoff at the idea that they’re “having a moment.” Still, in this post-“hot girls have IBS” era, when the phrase “my tummy hurts” has become a popular shirt slogan, it’s no wonder that lactase enzyme pills have undergone a similar pop culture yassification: “Live, laugh, Lactaid” is a slogan that now appears on earrings and T-shirts; TikTok is full of videos demonstrating how to fashion Pez dispensers into Lactaid holders; Cardi B once showed off a bowl bedazzled with the Lactaid logo. Clearly, lactase enzyme supplements have stepped out of the medicine cabinet’s shadows and into the spotlight.
Ice cream shops, for obvious reasons, have publicly embraced Lactaid. At Oddfellows, the tablets have been available for 50 cents apiece ever since the chain opened its first location in New York City in 2013, when it had few non-dairy options. “It’s always been a hit with our guests,” says director of operations Chris DiVito. “We’ve expanded our non-dairy options over the years but will always keep the Lactaid because people love it so much.” Similarly, the Lactaid dispenser at Fluffy McCloud’s, a new retro-looking scoop shop in Los Angeles, makes frequent appearances in the shop’s social media features.
Like eyeglasses, erectile dysfunction pills, and dental alignment devices, lactase enzyme tablets aren’t immune to aesthetically minded, Instagram ad-friendly startupification. Milky, which launched in September 2023, operates with the tagline: “Lactose intolerance. Reinvented.” Its innovation is lactase enzyme tablets that pop out of credit card-size, wallet-friendly sleeves not dissimilar to birth control packaging. The idea was born from Milky founder Khai Pham’s forgetfulness: He found himself too often out and about without a bag to hold a box or bottle of Lactaid, hampering his ability to get pizza or boba without repercussions.
If Lactaid looks staid, Milky makes lactose intolerance look, well, like something you want to pull out of your wallet to show off. Milky’s pill sleeves are stamped with the brand’s name in curvy, iridescent text and are available in black, white, or a fun and flashy “ultra violet.” “If you want to flex the brand and you want to show like, Oh yeah, it’s a cool thing, you can, and if you want to be discreet about it, you can,” says Pham.
He believes that the growing discussion of lactose intolerance — and in turn, all this public affinity for lactase enzyme supplements — reflects a broader societal shift toward transparency around once-taboo issues. We talk more about gastrointestinal distress, just like we talk more about mental health. And because lactose intolerance is associated more with certain cultural backgrounds than others, there can also be an in-joke signaling to these discussions. “I think in some circles, it’s a cultural identity marker,” Schwartz says.
Milky isn’t the only brand aiming to revitalize the lactase enzyme space. Hilma, which describes its guiding mission as “a cleaner option for [the] medicine cabinet,” sells minimalist mint-green bottles of digestive enzyme herbal supplements that look expertly calibrated for millennials who are likely also interested in clean beauty and TikTok videos of “gut health.” Now everything, even lactose intolerance, can be reworked to fit seamlessly into a targeted aesthetic.
Pham cites the brand Away, which breathed new life into the not-very-exciting luggage category, as inspiration for his approach to Milky. “Nothing is uncool by itself,” he says. “It’s just uncool brands that make those products.”
Ania Siniuk is an illustrator from Maryland whose work focuses on fashion, beauty, and lifestyle content.