Over the years, one of our top FAQs has been “Is Chocolate Dairy Free?” It’s such a misunderstood food, that I’ve actually had readers get angry at me for using chocolate in recipes. They are convinced that chocolate contains milk. But the fact of the matter is, pure chocolate is dairy free. It’s naturally free of all milk ingredients, vegan, and even allergy-friendly. It’s what manufacturers choose to add to chocolate that becomes the issue. But read on to fully understand this confusing topic. I have answers to all of your dairy-free chocolate questions.
Is Chocolate Dairy Free? Yes and No. Here’s Why …
The cacoa bean, from which commercial chocolate is made, is a raw ingredient. It doesn’t contain dairy, gluten, or any other allergenic components. It’s what is added to the recipe to create many popular chocolates and candy bars that can cause concern.
A Quick Primer on How Chocolate is Made
Cacao beans grow in pods on cacao trees, which thrive in the shade of hot, humid climates. Yes, chocolate is plant-based and doesn’t come from a cow! The raw beans are cleaned, fermented, dried, cleaned again, and then roasted. The shells are then separated from the cacao nibs, or the “meat” of the bean.
The cacao nibs are then finely ground into cocoa mass, which is also called cocoa liquor or cocoa solids. When placed under extremely high pressure, cocoa mass separates into cocoa powder and cocoa butter (sometimes called cacao butter). Pure chocolate is then created by combining cocoa solids and cocoa butter via processes called conching, tempering, and finally molding.
Fact #1: Cocoa Butter is not Dairy. The name is deceiving, but like other popular plant-based foods (i.e. peanut butter), the term “butter” is not related to dairy butter. Rather, it refers to the smooth and creamy texture of the product. As note above, cocoa butter, or cacao butter, is simply the vegetable fat extracted from cacao beans, and it doesn’t contain any milk.
Fact #2: Cocoa Liquor is not Alcohol. It is simply another name for cocoa mass, and does not contain any alcohol. Unlike alcoholic liquor, cocoa liquor is a solid or semi-solid. But cocoa liquor should not be confused with chocolate liqueur, which is a flavored type of alcohol.
Photo and source: Lake Champlain Chocolate.
The Other Ingredients in Chocolate
Thus far, we are only talking about pure chocolate, which is naturally dairy-free and vegan. This is unsweetened 100% cacao chocolate, often called baking chocolate.
To create dark chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate, sugar is added when the cacao ingredients are processed into chocolate. For milk chocolate, milk powder is also added. And for pure white chocolate (that’s made with real chocolate) cacao butter, milk powder, and sugar are typically used – no cocoa solids are added. Frequently, soy lecithin or sunflower lecithin is also added to chocolate as an emulsifier. Although many traditional chocolatiers still don’t use an emulsifier.
So typical milk chocolate is made with dairy and typical white chocolate is made with dairy. But, there are now many vegan brands of chocolate that use alternate ingredients, like soymilk powder, dairy-free coconut milk powder, cashews, hemp seeds, or oat flour, to make dairy-free milk chocolate and white chocolate.
True dark chocolate should remain dairy-free, but many popular brands, including Cadbury and Lindt, add milk-based ingredients to most of their dark chocolate products. You might spot butter oil, milk fat, milk solids, cream, lactose, whey, or other milky ingredients on the label. By FDA law, dairy will not be “hidden” in the ingredients. If it is in there, it has to be clearly identifiable.
For dairy-free chocolate options, see our Chocolate Reviews, my Chocolate Chip Guide, and my Favorite Chocolate Picks. And for those special occasions, we have big roundups of Dairy-Free Valentine Chocolates, Chocolate Easter Bunnies & Eggs, and Holiday Chocolates.
You can also make your own dairy-free dark chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate, white chocolate, and milk chocolate with my easy recipes in Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook.
Why do many Dairy-Free Chocolate Products say “May Contain Milk?”
A lot of chocolates are dairy-free by ingredients, and do not “contain” any dairy. But it is very common for dark chocolate to be made on shared lines with milk chocolate. Most manufacturers do wash the lines between batches, but not all have allergen protocols in place. This means with some companies, there is a risk for potential cross-contamination with dairy. This could be a small risk or a high risk, it could be a risk for trace amounts of dairy in an entire batch, or a risk for a notable amount of dairy in any given batch.
“May Contain” labels are voluntary and do not tell the whole story. They’re really just a flashy headline that shouldn’t be relied upon either way. Some brands omit “May Contain” labels when they have a high risk for cross-contamination with a top allergen, and some brands use “May Contain” labels when they follow good cleaning protocols, but want another buffer to mitigate any potential liability.
If you are severely sensitive or highly allergic to all traces of dairy, then you must always contact the manufacturer to discuss their allergen protocols. Do not rely on the label alone when searching for dairy-free chocolate or any other food. If you aren’t as sensitive to dairy, and are okay with potential trace amounts, then most varieties of dairy-free chocolate (made without dairy ingredients) will likely be okay for you. But always do your own due diligence! Only you can decide if a food is safe for your needs.
What is Dairy Free?
Dairy free means a product that is made without milk-based ingredients of any kind, even according to the FDA. It might still be made with eggs (though not likely in the case of chocolate), and nearly every food product is at some degree of risk for potential cross-contamination with dairy in manufacturing. Food is not kept in a vacuum from farm to store shelves. There is always some place along the way that dairy, or another top allergen, could get introduced.
If you are concerned about traces of any top allergen, then you must contact the manufacturer to find out their allergen protocols. Companies who have strict allergen protocols typically test for allergens down below a certain level. This level is usually so low, that studies have shown most allergic people will not react to it. Yes, even “allergen free” products are often made on shared equipment and could contain a very, very minute amount of dairy.
The fact is, there is no requirement for allergen testing, and no defined level that everyone who is allergic will react to. It varies from individual to individual. This is why dairy-free for one person, might not be strict enough for another.