The Real Difference Between Dairy-Free And Non-Dairy

The availability of products that are free of dairy is something that is important to many Americans who experience either a dairy allergy or find that they are lactose intolerant. According to WebMD, lactose intolerance is a common affliction that can be found in about 30 million Americans by the ripe age of 20. By contrast, dairy allergies are most common in children, with two in every 100 children under the age of four being allergic to milk

While lactose intolerance is less severe than a dairy allergy, it is still important that both groups steer clear of products that contain dairy. Companies have answered this call to arms by providing products that are either dairy-free or non-dairy. But, while many believe that both terms are interchangeable, they in fact are far from it. Unfortunately, not knowing the true difference between the two terms could lead to possible health issues for those who actively try to avoid products with dairy in them, according to The Spruce Eats.

The two terms are more like friends than they are family

The Food & Drug Administration does not have a set definition for "dairy-free," but it does have a loose definition for "non-dairy." The Spruce Eats explains that an item explicitly labeled "dairy-free" likely contains no form of dairy. These products include plant-based alternatives to milk, such as almond milk and soy milk. Regardless of that dairy-free label, however, those avoiding dairy products should still read the product label on the back to make sure that it truly has no dairy. Another option would be to look for products that state they are vegan, as they are made without the use of any animal byproduct. 

Unlike dairy-free products, non-dairy items have no guarantees of actually being free of dairy products. A Seattle-based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Ginger Hultin, RD, told The Healthy that non-dairy products can carry milk derivatives like casein and whey in them. Companies that sell non-dairy items are required by the FDA to clearly list if a product has dairy proteins in it. So if you're checking a product with some kind of dairy-related ingredient in it, the label should clearly state that it "contains milk" or list the ingredient followed by "milk derivative/product" in parentheses. The moral of the story? Always read the label first.