The Secrets to Decoding Food Labels for Dairy-Free Living

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Thanks to the processed foods industry, various types of dairy linger within many unexpected foods on our grocery store shelves. Even for the most diligent label readers the “secret code” words used on ingredient lists are enough to make your head spin. Luckily, there is help. This post covers what the labeling laws do for us, what we should look for on food labels, and how to address your own needs.

I originally shared this post in 2006, when the food allergen labeling laws went into action. But I’ve massively updated it with current details, more information, and tips.

The Secrets to Decoding Food Labels for Milk Allergies and Dairy-Free Living - Dietary Claims Explained, Quick Guide to Food Allergen Labeling Laws, Dairy Ingredient List, and More

The Secrets to Decoding Food Labels for Dairy-Free Living

I follow a simple three to four step process to quickly and efficiently locate and confirm dairy-free products:

  1. Scan for Helpful Dietary Claims
  2. Check the Food Allergen Labeling
  3. Read the Ingredients
  4. Contact the Manufacturer (if potential cross-contamination is a concern)

Below I’ve included details to help you understand, master, and adapt this process for your needs. But remember, this is just a guide. Only you can decide what foods are safe for you and your family.

Most of this information is extracted from my flagship book, Go Dairy Free: The Ultimate Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living.

Go Dairy Free 2nd Edition - The Ultimate Guide and Cookbook for Dairy-Free Living with Over 250 Recipes!

Helpful Dietary Claims on Food Labels

Companies use all types of statements to describe their products – some are specifically regulated, but most aren’t. Dietary claims shouldn’t be relied on alone, but they can help you quickly identify contenders for your shopping cart. Here are some labels you might see that pertain to dairy-free living.

Common Food Labels that May Indicate Dairy Free Products

  • Dairy-Free – This should indicate that the product is made without any dairy (milk-based) ingredients.
  • Non-Dairy – This usually means the product is made without any dairy ingredients, but it is possible that the product could still contain dairy ingredients. Read this post for more details: Non-Dairy vs Dairy-Free.
  • Milk-Free – It’s typically equivalent to dairy-free labels, and should mean the product is made without any milk-based (dairy) ingredients.
  • Lactose-Free – Lactose-free just means the product is free of milk sugar, not of all milk-based ingredients. However, some dairy-free products use this label instead of dairy-free. We’re not sure why.
  • Vegan – By definition, vegan products are made without any animal products, including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.
  • Plant-Based – This is a trendy new way to label vegan products. However, some brands use the term plant-based more loosely to mean that it is a plant-heavy, not vegan.
  • Kosher Pareve / Parve – See my guide to Understanding Kosher Certification.

None of the above labels are regulated by the FDA, so they should only be used as initial guidance. Nonetheless, if a product has a false claim on it, you should contact the company, and if needed, contact the FDA. Countless times, I’ve had consumers tell me a “vegan” product or a “dairy-free” product contained dairy. It shouldn’t. Even though these claims aren’t specifically regulated, the FDA requires all food label claims to be truthful. If they are not, then the product should be reported.

Now that you’ve spotted a potential product, it’s time to pick it up and turn over the box, and move onto the next step: look for the food allergen labeling.

Food Allergen Labeling Laws

Otherwise known as the “plain language” labeling law, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) went into effect in 2006. It covers all foods and supplements under the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) oversight, which are intended for sale within the United States.

The FALCPA requires that the Top 8 allergens be declared on food labels using easily recognizable names. They include milk (dairy), eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, shellfish, and fish. Sesame is considered the 9th top allergen, but it hasn’t been added to the FALCPA yet.

What Food Allergen Labeling Should Look Like

The allergen declaration can be done either with a notation in parentheses within the ingredient listing or in a statement immediately following the ingredients. I will use a dairy-based protein powder ingredient statement to demonstrate:

  • Within the ingredients: whey protein concentrate (milk), cocoa powder, stevia leaf extract, soy lecithin.
  • Following the ingredients: whey protein concentrate, cocoa powder, stevia leaf extract, soy lecithin. Contains: Milk, Soy

In the first example, soy doesn’t need to be called out since it is written in recognizable language within the ingredients.

Use “Contains” Statements as a First Line of Defense

The government has made it clear that even a seven-year-old should be able to read and understand food labels, but allergen labeling certainly isn’t foolproof. There are penalties for noncompliance, but the FDA is not reviewing all of the food labels that go out the door. I’ve seen numerous allergen errors and omissions on ingredient statements, particularly with dairy. And it’s up to the company or consumers to catch them.

I’ve also noticed it’s very common to see products with “Contains” statements that do contain dairy, but don’t include it in the statement. For example, a product might have peanuts and whey in the ingredients, but with a statement that simply says “Contains: peanuts.” Allergen labeling is a helpful first line to quickly weed out many products, but you must always read the ingredients to verify before purchasing.

And keep in mind that the FALCPA covers ingredients, not processes. If you are dealing with a severe or sensitive food allergy, and potential traces of an allergen are a concern, then you must contact the company to discuss their processes. Technically, all foods can be at risk for some degree of cross-contamination with other foods at various stages in production and packaging. Only you can decide, after speaking with the company, if the product is safe enough for your needs.

What Foods Don’t Fall Under FALCPA?

Most packaged foods in the grocery store fall under the FDA’s supervision, and are required to adhere to the FALCPA. But the FDA has a few exemptions, and select food and beverages are overseen by other government organizations. This list includes the products that are not required to follow the FALCPA.

  • Highly Refined Oils derived from one of the eight major food allergens and any ingredient derived from such highly refined oil, such as butter esters (FDA)
  • Wines, Distilled Spirits, and Malt Beverages (TTB) – see our Dairy-Free Alcohol Guide
  • Raw Agricultural Commodities, like fresh fruits and vegetables (USDA)
  • Beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and catfish (USDA)
  • Egg products, like egg whites and powdered eggs (USDA)

There are a few more specifics, which you can read on this post: FDA vs USDA.

Even though the TTB and the USDA do not have food allergen labeling requirements, they do recommend it for any packaged products. This is why some meats do have allergy food labels on them, while others do not.

What About Other Countries?

Canada has enacted similar legislation to FALCPA, but their allergen labeling covers the Top 11 food allergens (including milk). Their food labels look quite similar to what you find in the U.S.

The European Community has also adopted regulations on the disclosure of top food allergens for pre-packed foods. On their food labels, ingredients derived from milk must be adequately identified (along with 13 other top food allergy and sensitivity offenders) in all cases, with the following exceptions: whey used for making distillates or ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin for spirit drinks and other alcoholic beverages and lactitol. These ingredients are believed to be very far removed from milk, and are not considered a risk for eliciting a reaction. In the EU, top allergens are usually printed in bold within the ingredient statement.

Caution Against “May Contain” Statements

In a perfect world, all of the ingredients for your favorite cookies would go through a vacuum tube from field through production and into the package. But in the real world, each ingredient and product changes hands many times and goes through an entire chain or production and packaging. Because of this, all food products are at some degree of risk for potential cross contamination.

This is why I loathe “may contain” statements. They are misleading to everyone. They are unregulated, haphazard, and come in all forms. Here are some you might see:

  • May contain …
  • Made in a facility with …
  • Produced on a shared line with …
  • Etc …

To be clear, “may contain” statements are not required nor regulated by the FDA. They do not fall under FALCPA, and there are no advisory guidelines for these notes. Also, “may contain” statements do not refer to the ingredients, only to potential cross-contamination with allergens in the production process (usually trace).

What most people don’t realize is “may contain” statements are very rarely added for the safety of the consumer. They’re most often added to protect the company from liability. There are companies that actually allergy test, but use the labels “just in case.”

On the contrary, there are many companies in shared facilities or even using shared lines who don’t use may contain statements. I bet you didn’t even know that a lot of allergy-friendly companies use shared lines and facilities! These statements tell you nothing about the company’s processes, ingredient sourcing, allergy testing, packaging, etc.

Most people who are not concerned about potential trace cross-contamination with a top allergen simply ignore the “may contain” statements. But if you are concerned about potential cross-contamination, then you MUST contact the company, even if there is no “may contain” statement.

How Does the 2020 FDA Guidance Affect Milk Allergies?

In May 2020, the FDA announced temporary flexibility for label requirements in order to help alleviate supply chain issues. They did not specify an end date. Under this guidance, manufacturers can make minor formulation changes to products without having to updated the ingredient statement, unless the change affects a top allergen, gluten, sulfites, and some other ingredients considered high for sensitivities. Since milk is a top allergen, this guidance has no direct affect on milk allergen labeling.

Some people have pointed to concerns about companies not using ‘may contain’ statements. But as mentioned, these have always been voluntary, and have never been suggested or regulated by the FDA.

Quick Guide for Dairy Ingredients

Now that we’ve covered the first line defenses, it’s time to move on to the second line: reading the ingredients. It’s important to know what’s in your food, and to be able to spot dairy if the allergen labeling is incorrect. The FALCPA has been in place for nearly 15 years, but I still see errors, discrepancies, and confusing food labels. Which is why I keep our Dairy Ingredient List updated. It has a quick reference guide, explanation on questionable ingredients, and even “surprisingly dairy-free ingredients” for you to enjoy.

Dairy Ingredient List

Contact the Manufacturer for Cross Contamination Concerns

If you are dealing with a very severe or highly sensitive food concern, then you must contact the manufacturer for more information. It’s essential to ask about their ingredient sourcing and production processes – including cleaning protocols between batches, allergen testing, and packaging.

By law, all manufacturers must include contact information on their packaging. Most brands can also be reached through their website or Facebook page.

And remember that food manufacturing isn’t a vacuum. What matters most is what they do to make sure the product is safe for your needs. Only you can make this decision.

For More Dairy-Free Living Guidance, Get Go Dairy Free!

Go Dairy Free - The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance and Casein-Free Living

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.

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