Know Your Labels: Lactose-Free vs. Non-Dairy vs. Dairy-Free

Did you know that “lactose-free”, “non-dairy” and “dairy-free” do not mean the same thing? It can be confusing and frustrating, but it’s important to know the difference when you have a dairy allergy.

Why It’s Confusing
  • Something that is “Milk” doesn’t mean cow’s milk, or animal milk.
    • Almond Milk, Coconut Milk, Soy Milk, etc.
  • Something that says “Cream” isn’t always cow’s milk.
    • Coconut Cream, Cream of Tartar, etc.
  • Just because it says “Butter” doesn’t mean it’s from dairy sources either.
    • Almond Butter, Peanut Butter, Apple Butter, etc.

Then you have things like:

  • Lactose Free is not Dairy Free
  • Dairy Free is not Non Dairy
  • Non-Dairy, you guessed it, is not Lactose Free

Confused yet?

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
Lactose Free

Lactose-Free means that it is only free of lactose, a protein found in cow’s milk that people can have a hard time digesting. Many people lack a specific enzyme to digest this protein and are therefore, lactose-intolerant. There are lactose-free milks and other products, but that does not mean there is no trace of cow’s milk in the product. There are other proteins in milk that are used and can be in products labeled “Lactose-Free”. So good for people who are just intolerant to lactose, but not necessarily allergic to dairy all around.

Non-Dairy

This is one of the trickiest and the one that upsets me. You would think from the label there should be no dairy, or no cow’s milk in the product. Wrong! The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has allowed products with this label to still have animal proteins found in dairy (like whey or casein) to be present. The products that come to mind the most are “Non-Dairy Creamers” like the powdered creamers, and “Non-Dairy Whipped Topping”. Both still have other components of dairy in their ingredients list, but it’s not “Milk” as a whole.

Dairy-Free

This is truly what it says it is. Dairy-free. At least it is for now. So if the product you are holding says “Dairy-Free” and you have a dairy allergy, you should be safe. There are a lot of non-dairy yogurts, cheeses, milks, etc. that truly do not have dairy components in them at all.

Read The Whole Label

Now with knowing the difference, I wanted to talk about a few surprising things I’ve found. There are a lot of vegan and vegetarian “dairy-free” products out there now. Some products are placed next to them and could be safe to assume they do not have dairy. For example: One time when I was testing out some different dairy-free cheeses I came across one right next to the rest of the truly dairy-free products. I read the label. It was a soy based cheese, so for myself I wasn’t going to buy it, but I was shocked to still see “Casein” (a protein found in milk and other animal products) as one of the ingredients. So all though it was “Non-Dairy” cheese, and the first few ingredients looked good and was plant-based, there were still milk based ingredients. Be careful.

Go Dairy Free.org has a lot of information on their site. Here is a Dairy Ingredient List they have that is pretty much all inclusive if you truly do have a dairy allergy.

Bottom Line
  • Educate Yourself
  • Know Your Labels
  • Dairy-Free (right now) is the Label that is truly free of dairy and all that comes with it
  • Know The Different Names of Dairy
  • Don’t get overwhelmed

It can be a hassle. It can start to be a headache, but you’ll realize a lot of the words are similar. Pretty much anything with “lacto” “lacta” “lactu” “whey” “casein” are things you need to stay away from. Buying things without a label like fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fresh meats, etc. you will not need to worry about reading labels or ingredient lists. When most of your basket at the store is full of those items, you won’t need to be reading everything you’re buying.

Work for your body so it can work for you.


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