What’’s the Difference Between Casein-Free and Dairy-Free?


Ghee labeled as casein-freeQ: Anita – My son has an allergy to casein. I am trying to find foods that he can eat, but the labels are a bit confusing. If a product is labeled as dairy-free, is it safe for him, or does it need to be casein-free specifically?

A: Alisa – The most important thing is to read the ingredients. Labels can be misleading, so always check the ingredient list for the potential allergen. Also, if your son’s allergy is severe, and potential cross-contamination is a concern, contact the company to confirm ingredients and manufacturing processes prior to consumption, even if it appears to be dairy-ingredient-free and even if it is labeled as “dairy-free” or “casein-free.”

But in direct response to your question on the labeling, the term dairy-free indicates that there are no dairy ingredients (see this article where I address the terms ‘non-dairy’ vs ‘dairy-free’), this would include lactose, casein, whey, etc.

Casein is a type of protein within milk. In other words, it is a component of dairy foods. Thus, a product can actually be casein-free, but contain another dairy “component” such as lactose or even dairy fat. Ghee for example is often labeled as casein-free. It is dairy butter, essentially. But it has been purified to, in theory, extract all of the proteins, leaving just pure butter fat. It is still a dairy product, but according to some manufacturers, it no longer contains casein. Whether or not such a food is safe for your son is something you should discuss with his physician as traces of the milk protein could still remain.

Manufacturers egg on the confusion by putting both “dairy-free” and “casein-free” on a single package. I hate that they do this as it implies that a dairy-free product may not be casein-free. In general (but as mentioned, always verify the ingredients!), dairy-free = casein-free but casein-free ≠ dairy-free.


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.

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About Author

Alisa is the founder of GoDairyFree.org, Food 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, and the new cookbook, Eat Dairy Free: Your Essential Cookbook for Everyday Meals, Snacks, and Sweets. Alisa is also a professional recipe creator and product ambassador for the natural food industry.


  1. I recently realized a product I used that is labeled non-dairy, contains casein. Do u think this label is basically meaningless and just for marketing?

    • Hi Maria, I’ve never heard of vegan milk. Lactose-free milk is not dairy-free or casein-free. It’s just dairy milk with the lactose (milk sugar) removed. Dairy-free milk beverage is casein-free by ingredients. Dairy encompasses all forms of milk. But if you are dealing with a sensitive or severe milk allergy, you should always contact the company to ensure that you are comfortable with the manufacturer processes.

  2. Ok, so I am confused. If I’m lactose intolerant, I can have Ghee? It’s listed in your ‘Definitely Dairy’ list. I have the same question about yogurt with live cultures. I’ve read that the cultures eat up all the lactose so I should be able to eat it even if I’m lactose intolerant?

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