In the world of rising dairy alternatives, it can sometimes be confusing to differentiate between the various terms and what they mean.




Dairy contains lactose, a sugar in milk that many people lack the ability to digest. Our bodies are not meant to consume milk after our formative years, so being lactose intolerant is fairly common, with about 65% of the population having this issue. Symptoms can include bloating, nausea, abdominal pain or diarrhea, so it is best to steer clear of products containing lactose. However, this doesn’t mean that all dairy products are off limits. Lactose-free products can still have dairy, they just need lactase, an enzyme necessary for the digestion of milk, to be added. Whey protein and Activia yogurts are just a couple examples of dairy products that are still suitable for people who are lactose intolerant.




Dairy-free, on the other hand, means that the product is not derived from milk whatsoever. It excludes all forms of dairy and is usually followed by people who have a milk allergy, or who avoid dairy by choice, such as vegans. A milk allergy can cause symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, vomiting and hives, and is commonly caused by an allergy to the proteins in milk – casein and whey. Luckily, for these types of people, there are still many dairy-free, plant-based alternatives to milk, yogurt, butter, cheese etc., so this does not doom them to give up an entire food group. It should be noted that the Food and Drug Administration never defined the term “dairy-free,” so it is not regulated or enforced by this organization. However, the FDA does state that labelling must be truthful and cannot be misleading, so while you should be able to initially assume that these products do not contain dairy, make sure to double check the ingredients label.




Non-dairy is a confusing term because it does not automatically mean the product is free of dairy. In fact, the FDA allows non-dairy products to contain casein, a milk derivative, which would not be suitable for people with milk allergies or those who wish to avoid dairy altogether. Commonly, non-dairy labelled coffee creamers are made from casenite, so it is important to read carefully.


Overall, the key differences to remember are that lactose-free still contains dairy (and “non-dairy” may as well) while dairy-free should mean the product is completely free of milk products or ingredients.


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