Non Dairy vs Dairy Free: Why One May Contain Milk

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I received the following question from a Go Dairy Free reader named Donna on the topic of non dairy vs dairy free:

I have a non-dairy creamer that has sodium caseinate (a milk derivative) and have noticed many other commercial brand non-dairy creamers with this ingredient. Does this make it still a dairy product? If so, how can it be called non dairy if it contains milk?

Non Dairy vs Dairy Free - Why One May Contain Milk (and how to avoid them!)

By definition, “non” means “not”, so we would assume that a non-dairy product would not contain dairy. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case due to some confusing labeling that the FDA permits. The following is an excerpt from my book, Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook, which specifically addresses the confusion of non dairy vs dairy free:

The FDA has created a regulatory definition for the term non-dairy, but amazingly, it does not equate to milk-free. A product labeled as non-dairy can contain 0.5% or less milk by weight, in the form of casein / caseinates (milk protein). This is why you may spot non-dairy creamers, non-dairy whipped toppings, and other non-dairy products that note milk on the ingredient statement. This does not mean that all products labeled as non-dairy contain milk, but it is a word of warning to always read the ingredient statement.

This definition only applies to the term “non-dairy”. The term “dairy-free” is not actually regulated, but oddly enough, this seems to make it more reliable. I have yet to find a product labeled as dairy-free that contains any milk ingredients (though it could happen, so read those ingredients!). Nonetheless, dairy-free or non-dairy products may still be at risk for cross-contamination with milk products during production on shared equipment. Always verify ingredients and processes prior to consumption of any food product if trace amounts of milk (or other allergen) from cross-contamination may be a concern for you.

To avoid any mix-ups, I have a couple recommendations:

Non Dairy vs Dairy Free - Why One May Contain Milk (fortunately, this brand doesn't!)Find Trusted Dairy-Free Brands – Read ingredients, check websites and call if necessary to find reliable dairy-free companies. For truly dairy-free creamers and whipped topping, I typically turn to So Delicious Dairy Free – everything they make is free of dairy (hence their name), caseinates and all. You can see my dairy-free coffee creamer post for more of our findings for that particular type of product.

Look For the Signs – To save time, scan packaging for labels that elude to a truly dairy-free product. As shown on the image of So Delicious Dairy Free CocoWhip Topping below, “dairy free” can be a good indicator, especially if it’s in the brand’s name! The Kosher Parve certification also denotes a product made without dairy. Finally, a product should not be labeled as “vegan” (though mistakes have happened) if it contains any dairy. When you spot what looks like a winner, double check the ingredients, and if needed due to cross-contamination concerns, the processes.

Non Dairy vs Dairy Free - Why One May Contain Milk (fortunately, this brand doesn't!)

To note, many creamer and whipped topping companies that do use dairy have been moving away from the non-dairy label for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious confusion among consumers. But the primary motive is consumer demand for more “natural” ingredients. Several no longer qualify for FDA non-dairy status as they add some dairy cream to their products to be able to claim “made with real cream”, despite the fact that many questionable ingredients remain.

This post on the use of non dairy vs dairy free is sponsored by So Delicious Dairy Free, but all of the opinions are my own. Please note that this post has been created for informational purposes only. Always read product labels to ensure they are safe for you, and consult a physician before making any change in diet. For more dairy-free Q&A topics, see our Ask Alisa Page.

About Author

Alisa is the founder of GoDairyFree.org, Senior Editor for Allergic Living magazine, and author of the best-selling dairy-free book, Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. Alisa is also a professional recipe creator and product ambassador for the natural food industry.

33 Comments

  1. John McCarthy on

    Now I know why “alcohol free” actually means non alcohol beer is actually .5% alcohol, with the blessing of the FDA, and those who think otherwise are wondering why they get a buzz from drinking a six pack! Why is this tolerated?

  2. Great advice can i ask as well some of you might be able to help i have noticed when checking alot of products it would say powdered milk is this the same as dairy. (Such as soups noddles gravy crisps etc. I cant get answers like at my local shop they do a dairy free cake the cream is dairy free however the cake itself has powdred milk….. any advice would be great. Thanks in advance

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  5. This is really great info. Unfortunately some people don’t even know that Lactaid is real dairy and I’ve seen a blogger promoting “Dairy Free” ice cream made from Lactaid ? Not that Lactaid is bad, I think it’s great and I use it for certain recipes since my daughter is lactose intolerant and not allergic to dairy but the lack of knowledge can be dangerous…

  6. I get so angry when I see a non-dairy label and then look at the ingredients and see that their is indeed dairy in the product. Not only is it deceptive, it’s dangerous for people with allergies. Thanks for the great post.

  7. For those who really do need to be dairy free this is devastating news. It is nearly as bad as the discovery that some products contain traces of peanuts because they were processed through the same equipment without thorough cleaning.

    I suppose that the difference is that having an intolerance to dairy probably won’t kill you where an intolerance to peanut certainly can. I may be wrong in that so please correct me if I am.

    My friend is dairy intolerant but she resolves the issue by making her own non-dairy milk which she learned about on this site http://alternativechefkitchen.com/milk-summary/ . According to her the rice milk is the best and she knows that there is no cross contamination or any trace of dairy products in her milk.

    Thanks for a helpful article.

    • Hi Ralph, actually milk is one of the top 3 IgE allergies, too, so there are many people who can have anaphylaxis to dairy just as someone with a peanut allergy. Sadly, there have been many reported and publicized deaths due to milk allergy. Problems with milk extend far beyond lactose intolerance. Non-dairy products are typically lactose-free, but may contain milk protein (caseinate), which is the top allergenic protein. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Wow, talk about so darn incredibly frustrating and confusing! I swear, it seems hardly any products can truly be trusted. I swear, dairy is the one thing that sickens me and scares me the most too. Great post!

  9. Great post on an important issue Alisa. Food labels are so tricky. The whole <.5% or less than .5 g as it pertains to certain other foods is very tricky. I have had to educate people on that with regards to Trans fats too.

  10. Wow, this actually makes me kind of angry. And it starts with the FDA…that regulation should be changed to 0% if they want the label. It’s misleading for sure and the brands shouldn’t be doing it, but you can’t really fault them for making the sketchy guidelines work for them. And we wonder why consumers are so confused on what’s truly constitutes as healthy food.

  11. This is so interesting! I’ve always wondered why non-dairy creamers can contain milk. A couple of times, this has caused awkwardness, when well-meaning family or friends picked up non-dairy creamer for me that I had to turn down.

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