Q: Jeanette – I recently purchased a mix for making chocolate chip cookies that was labeled dairy free on the front. I was so excited, but when I read the back ingredients I saw that they used semi- sweet chocolate chips (sugar, unsweetened chocolate, soy lecithin and vanilla). I am confused; don't these chips contain dairy?
Q: Nicole – I've found lots of chocolate chips that the only ingredient I'm confused on is cocoa butter. Is cocoa butter dairy free?
Q: Terri – My daughter has recently been diagnosed with eosiniphilic esophagitis due to a milk allergy. Her birthday is approaching and some of the milk free deserts say to use chocolate chips. Doesn't that have milk in it?
Q: James – You posted a recipe that called for dark chocolate. I thought this was a dairy-free website?
A: Alisa – As you can see, we get questions on chocolate frequently. This is just a random sampling of our many chocolate inquiries, so I thought it was high time we address those chocolate cravings for all of you dairy-free consumers …
First, I will quickly relieve many concerns by stating that there are MANY dairy-free chocolates available and you can even make your own at home. If you are just looking for a list of the milk-free chocolate brands available (from chips to bars and everything in between), then you will find our No Dairy Product Lists useful.
For more assistance in understanding ingredients, label reading, and our chocolate suggestions, read on …
The cacoa bean from which commercial chocolate is made is a raw ingredient, no dairy, gluten, or other allergenic components to be found. It is what is added to the bean in production that can cause concern.
The first stage of breaking down chocolate is the creation of cacao nibs. The raw beans are fermented, dried, cleaned, roasted, and shelled to reveal the cacao nibs that raw foodists hold so dear. To begin the chocolate transformation, the nibs are ground into cocoa mass (still pure chocolate), which is then liquefied to create chocolate liquor, or unsweetened chocolate. You might actually see chocolate liquor or unsweetened chocolate as an ingredient in some brands of chocolate, but it is often further processed into the following two components:
- Cocoa Butter – The name is deceiving. Like in some other popular foods (ie peanut butter, apple butter), the term “butter” is not always related to dairy. Rather, it refers to the smooth and creamy texture of the product. Cocoa butter is actually the vegetable fat extracted from cacao beans. It is a pure ingredient that doesn’t contain any milk.
- Cocoa Solids – This is the nonfat component of pure chocolate, which may often be referred to as cocoa powder, cocoa, or cacao.
Thus far, we are still dealing with pure chocolate, so all of the above is dairy-free (cocoa powder, cocoa butter, cocoa solids, cacao nibs, etc.). As we get into the creation of commercial chocolate, some other ingredients may be added.
A good quality dark or semi-sweet chocolate will only have sweetener / sugar in some form added, and may also include a touch of soy lecithin as an emulsifier. These brands are milk-free by ingredients, but keep in mind that most brands of chocolate are made on shared equipment. That is, an inherently milk-free dark chocolate may be made on the same equipment as milk chocolate. See below for my note on cross-contamination issues.
The complications arrive as some brands of dark and semi-sweet chocolate do include milk ingredients for a “smoother” end result. This is particularly true in mainstream brands like Hershey’s. Some ways that you may see milk listed in the ingredients include milk solids, milk, milk powder, whey, butter oil or butterfat (see the Ask Alisa post on butter oil), or even casein. If milk is in the ingredients, it should be listed in a clearly identifiable manner per the labeling laws, but still, use caution.
Milk chocolate is just as the name implies, it does contain milk. Though there are some tasty dairy-free “milk” chocolates popping up. White chocolate is also typically rich in milk, but there are a few vegan brands on the market. For non-dairy versions of both “milk” and white chocolate, see our No Dairy Product Lists.
To give you an example, these Fudge Brownie Cookies (recipe in Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook) that I made for my husband’s birthday are laced with chocolate chips for a double dose of chocolate, but they do not contain even a trace of milk. The fudgie cookie taste is made with a combination of natural vegetable fats and cocoa powder and the chocolate chips are from Enjoy Life Foods, an allergy-friendly manufacturer with a dedicated facility.
Cross-contamination Note for Commercial Chocolate: Typically, thorough cleaning is done between production runs, even in chocolate manufacturing. But trace amounts of milk may still remain on the equipment, and thus make its way into the finished product. For those who must be concerned about trace amounts of milk, it is essential to contact the manufacturer to ensure processes. Not all chocolates that are made on shared equipment clearly identify this on the label. Some companies opt to put statements like “may contain traces of milk” or “made on shared equipment with milk,” but this is optional, and not currently required by law.
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.