Lactose absorption capacity was examined in 641 apparently healthy adolescents and adults (447 males and 194 females with an average age of 22.9 years and an age range of 16-46 years) using a field version of the lactose tolerance test with breath hydrogen determination. In the total sample, 89 lactose absorbers and 552 lactose malabsorbers were identified. Lactose malabsorption was most frequent in a subgroup of Han (Chinese) from northeastern China (229 of 248 subjects, 92.3%). Among 198 Mongols from Inner Mongolia, there were 174 lactose malabsorbers (87.9%). The frequency of lactose malabsorption was lowest in a group of Kazakhs, traditional herders from the northwestern region of Xinjiang (149 of 195 subjects, 76.4%). Reported symptoms of lactose intolerance were significantly more frequent in lactose malabsorbers. The findings in northern Han are similar to the reported lactose malabsorption frequency in southern (mainly overseas) Chinese, and correspond with the absence of animal milk from traditional Chinese diets. The relatively low prevalence of lactose malabsorption among the Kazakhs suggests that lactose persistence may be frequent in herding pastoralist populations of southwest Asia.