Q: Heather (of Heather Eats Almond Butter) - I was curious about how my body would react to heavy whipping cream and butter. I know I have problems with the proteins in dairy, but do you know of anyone who has to skip out on the high protein dairy products like yogurt and cottage cheese but can handle the ones that are mostly fat?
A: Alisa – The answer to this question hinges on the level of milk sensitivity and the product in question.
In general, heavy cream will offer little relief to someone who is sensitive to milk, and will still pose a threat to the milk allergic. Cream varies in grade depending on the country. In the U.S., heavy cream or heavy whipping cream is defined as 36% milk fat or higher. It is the higher-butterfat layer skimmed from the top of milk before homogenization. Increasing the fat “pushes out” some of the proteins, but not all. For example, skim milk contains about 8 grams of protein per cup, while fluid heavy cream contains just under 5 grams of protein per cup. There is certainly enough protein remaining in heavy cream to cause problems for most people who are sensitive to milk proteins (whey, casein, or otherwise), and it is definitely an unsuitable food for those with moderate to severe milk allergies …
Dairy butter is a much more controversial topic. It is usually derived from cow’s milk; though it can be made from other mammals (see Go Dairy Free for a discussion on the various types of mammal milk). Commercial butter is primarily butterfat and water, though it would be rare to find a protein-free dairy butter. A small amount of milk protein typically remains in commercial dairy butter, but I have heard positive reports from many people with milk sensitivities or moderate milk allergies who could tolerate butter, at least in small doses. Because at least trace amounts of milk protein (or more) would typically remain in dairy butter, I would not recommend it for those with severe or life-threatening food allergies, and even those with less severe milk allergies should tread lightly.
Ghee, otherwise known as clarified butter, takes the fat to the next level. Dairy butter is simmered until all of the water has boiled off and the milk protein has settled to the bottom. The “pure” butter fat is skimmed off, leaving the milk solids behind. Because of its extremely high fat content, ghee is usually shelf-stable, and can be stored without refrigeration in an air-tight container. Though it is seen most often in Indian food, ghee can be used in place of dairy butter for most applications and it is becoming increasing popular among the casein-free community. Some food companies that tout themselves as gluten-free / casein-free (GFCF), such as gluten-free meals, do use clarified butter in some of their products.
Because it could still contain trace amounts of milk protein, those with moderate to severe, or life-threatening milk allergies should use caution. However, I have been contacted by many people who follow a casein-free or whey-free diet, whether for autism, other autoimmune diseases, mild to moderate milk allergies, or milk protein sensitivities, and told that they are able to tolerate ghee without a problem.
Keep in mind, none of the above dairy foods are suitable for those who are seeking to avoid dairy products completely, whether for health, religious, or social reasons. Also, if milk allergies are a concern for you, consult a physician before trialing any dairy foods.
For more dairy-free Q&A topics, see our Ask Alisa Page.
Alisa Fleming is the founder of GoDairyFree.org and author of Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. In addition to her own dairy-free lifestyle, Alisa has experience in catering to the needs of various special diets, including gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, vegan, and multiple food allergies.