Dairy-Free and Non-Dairy: Milk-Allergic Consumers?

Milk-allergic consumers and the parents of milk-allergic consumers should be somewhat cautious about the use of food products labeled as dairy-free or non-dairy. These terms can appear rather prominently on the labels of food packages. However, these terms should not be used as a short-cut to examination of the ingredient statement that appears on the package label.

What do these terms mean?


No regulatory definition exists for the term, dairy-free. That means that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has not established any regulations regarding use of that terminology on package labels. Of course, the FDA does not allow the use of false and misleading terms in general on food labels. But without a regulatory definition in place, there can be no assurance that foods labeled as "dairy free" are in fact free from any milk proteins.

Should milk-allergic consumers purchase dairy-free products? Not without first reading the ingredient statement. Although such products generally should be okay, the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program (FARRP) has, in the past, identified products from several smaller manufacturers that contain milk even though they are labeled as dairy-free. Some companies may use this term to describe lactose-free or low-lactose products for those consumers with lactose intolerance. Or they may use it on products that are free of traditional dairy ingredients such as milk and cream but not free of milk derivatives such as caseinates or whey. However, if the products contain milk protein, they are unsafe for individuals with milk allergy. Unfortunately, those with milk allergies cannot rely on "dairy free" claims and will need to scrutinize the ingredient statement for evidence of milk.


A regulatory definition does exist for the term, non-dairy. But, incredibly, the regulatory definition actually allows the presence of the milk protein, casein, in such products. Non-dairy is commonly used on coffee creamers made from caseinate, a milk protein, rather than milk or cream. The term, non-dairy, is a long-standing byproduct of the strong dairy lobby that wanted to assure that substitute milk and cream products could not bear the dairy name.

Non-dairy definitely does not mean that the product is milk-free. FDA regulations specifically allow the use of caseinates (and casein is one of the major milk allergens) in non-dairy products. However, the term, caseinate, will appear in the ingredient statement and must be followed by a parenthetical explanation, such as (a milk derivative). While non-dairy is a term that is frequently used on coffee creamers, it is also used similarly on various other products containing caseinates. Once again, careful inspection of the ingredient statement is the consumers best defense.

By the way, many professionals in the food industry would agree that the FDA regulation for the term, non-dairy, is ludicrous. However, changing regulations that actually exist in the Code of Federal Regulations is a long and tortuous process.