Non Dairy vs Dairy Free: Why One May Contain Milk

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I originally covered the topic of non dairy vs dairy free over a decade ago, when I received the following question from a Go Dairy Free reader named Donna.

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 and isn’t dairy free?

The answer isn’t cut and dry, and has actually changed a little over the years. So I’m updating this post with the latest information, straight from the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

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

Non Dairy vs Dairy Free: Why One May Contain Milk

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.

How the Non-Dairy Conundrum Began

Many years ago, the FDA created a regulatory definition for the term non-dairy. It stated that a product labeled as non-dairy can contain 0.5% or less milk by weight, in the form of casein / caseinates (milk protein). The idea wasn’t to protect dairy-free consumers, but to prevent dairy consumers from mistaking very low-milk, dairy-like foods for dairy products.

What Non-Dairy Means Today

The FDA eventually retracted their official non-dairy definition, but they still have a general stance on what it means. A representative for the FDA provided the following “non-dairy response” to us in 2019.

We do not have a definition for the term [nondairy]in our regulations for food labeling.  However, we do not consider the terms “nondairy” and “dairy free” to be equivalent.  We have interpreted the term “dairy free” as meaning the complete absence of all dairy ingredients including lactose, etc.  The term “nondairy” refers to products, such as nondairy whipped topping and nondairy creamers, that may contain a caseinate milk derivative.

What Dairy-Free Means

The FDA has never had a definition for the term dairy-free. As mentioned above, they have a general interpretation of the term, but they do not enforce or regulate it.

However, the FDA does state that labeling must be truthful and cannot be misleading. Consequently, consumers should be able to initially assume that a dairy-free product is made without dairy ingredients. You must then read the ingredient label to be sure. If you see the term dairy-free on a product that contains any type of milk in the ingredients, you are urged to notify the company and contact the FDA.

Remember that these labels address ingredients, not processes. If you are dealing with a severe milk allergy or other highly sensitive dairy concern, you must also contact the manufacturer to discuss their processes. The term dairy-free typically refers to the ingredients themselves, not the processes and potential allergen cross-contamination in manufacturing.

Non-Dairy Products are Often Dairy Free

Contrary to the FDA wording in their response above, most products labeled as “non-dairy” are in fact dairy-free by ingredients. Many companies choose to use the term non-dairy instead of dairy-free for a variety of reasons. Some say this label is more familiar and less intimidating to consumers. Others fear liability from using a “free from” term of any kind.

The “non-dairy” products that most often contain a small amount of casein (milk protein) are foods that we would think of as “dairy” products, like whipped toppings and creamers. Even then, most of the new “non-dairy” toppings, milk beverages, and creamers are made without any dairy ingredients. As time goes on, we’re seeing the terms non-dairy and dairy-free used more interchangeably.

Non-Dairy Foods and Allergen Labeling Laws

Although the term “non-dairy” may be misleading, food manufacturers cannot “hide” dairy in the ingredients. Our friends at the FDA shared this somewhat convoluted explanation of the requirements with us, but hopefully, you get the gist.

When foods characterized on the label as “nondairy” contain a caseinate ingredient, the caseinate ingredient must be followed by a parenthetical statement identifying its source.  If the manufacturer uses the term “nondairy” on a creamer that contains sodium caseinate, it must include a parenthetical term such as “a milk derivative” after the listing of sodium caseinate in the ingredient list.  (Reference: 21 CFR 101.4(d)).

In addition, milk and ingredients derived from milk such as casein (a milk protein) are major food allergens.  Federal law requires the source of sodium caseinate to be indicated in the ingredient statement of a label, e.g., “sodium caseinate (milk).”  Alternatively, the source of this ingredient may be indicated in a contains statement immediately after or adjacent to the ingredient statement, e.g., “Contains: milk.”

Tips for Finding Dairy-Free Non-Dairy Products

Look for Trusted Brands – Read ingredients, check websites, and call if necessary to find reliable dairy-free companies. Over time, you will probably find some beloved dairy-free companies that consistently provide you with the foods your craving. For those tricky non-dairy foods, I do have a Dairy-Free Coffee Creamer Guide and a Dairy-Free Whipped Topping Guide.

See the Dairy-Free 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, contact the company to inquire on their allergen processes.

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

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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.

50 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!

    • Jane Rimmer on

      You are confusing several terms that do not mean the same thing – intolerance and allergy. A lactose intolerance is not the same as a milk allergy.
      I have never heard of a peanut intolerance. It is a peanut allergy.

      • I think many people use the term “intolerance” to describe non-IgE reactions. In reality, you are correct – non-IgE reactions, like those that can occur with conditions like EE, are still an immune response, and are thus an allergy. But since these types of reactions can be delayed, and don’t involve anaphylaxis as often as IgE-mediated allergies, many people call them “intolerance.” With these conditions, people often don’t react noticeably at lower levels of the allergen (but sometimes they do!), so they might not worry about traces as much. I have come across many people (and am related to one) with non-IgE allergies to peanuts through eosinophilic conditions. Food and our reactions to them is a confusing topic indeed!

  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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