The Difference Between Non-dairy and Dairy-free

Female buying dairy products
skynesher/Vetta/Getty Images

Food labels can be confusing, especially when you're new to purchasing items for a person with allergies or a restricted diet. In the dairy-free community, the terms "dairy-free" and "non-dairy" are often used interchangeably. However, the terms are not interchangeable in what they represent on food labels. Thus, "dairy-free" does not mean the same thing as "non-dairy" on a food label. The difference between the terms can be life-threatening for a person with a dairy allergy or sensitivity.

Dairy-Free Products

While there is no Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory explanation of what dairy-free means on food labels, more often than not, a product with this label is actually dairy-free. Products that are labeled vegan should also be dairy-free, as vegan products contain no form of dairy like milk, eggs, or cheese.

Although you can feel relatively safe that when a label claims a product is dairy-free, it is indeed dairy-free, people on a dairy-free or vegan diet are encouraged to always read the label. Unfortunately, sometimes items are labeled incorrectly and include dairy-derived ingredients present in the food. 

Examples of dairy-free products include:

  • Alternative milks like soy milk, almond milk, and coconut milk
  • Desserts like sherbet, frozen fruit bars, and angel food cake
  • Peanut butter, nuts, and seeds
  • Protein like beans, meat, and peas
  • Tofu products and soy cheeses
  • Vegetable and meat soups that are milk-free

    Non-Dairy Items

    There is an FDA regulatory explanation for the term non-dairy, but the regulation allows the presence of milk protein such as casein, whey, and other derivatives. Casein is the main protein found in milk, cheese, and other processed foods. Whey is the liquid part of milk that remains once it has been curdled and strained.

    You have likely come across non-dairy coffee creamers and non-dairy cheeses that actually contain casein, caseinates, whey, and other derivatives that are clearly not milk-free.

    The phrase "non-dairy" came into FDA regulations as a result of the dairy industry. This is because the dairy industry did not want products that were dairy substitutes to be mistaken for actual dairy products, like cream and milk.

    Following a Dairy-Free or Vegan Diet

    It can feel impossible to follow a dairy-free or vegan diet, but more and more grocery stores and restaurants are providing products to make it easy. Try following this three-step action plan:

    1. Read labels. This is essential for anyone with an allergy or intolerance. Familiarize yourself with dairy-derived ingredients and learn how to spot them on nutritional labels. Many labels list the allergens the product contains, but some do not. Those with a life-threatening allergy or intolerance should avoid products that lack nutritional information. Because this can be easier in the grocery store, it's important to let your waiter know about your allergy when ordering at a restaurant. You can even check most menus ahead of time, online, for an idea of what to get. Specifically look for allergen and nutritional menus to see the breakdown of ingredients.
       
    1. Buy whole foods. Eating whole foods, rather than prepared foods, will cut out the middle man when it comes to cooking. It will also ensure that your food has not come into contact with dairy ingredients during processing. One trick is to spend more time in the produce section where vegetables and fruit are abundant.
    2. Do your research. With a little bit of homework, you can find out who to trust. Eventually, you'll have a better grip on what brands provide true dairy-free and vegan products and which restaurants are accommodating for dairy-free and vegan needs or preferences. To get started on a dairy-free diet, here's a list of resources for what to get: