What's the Difference Between Lactose-Free and Dairy-Free?

Man shopping for milk
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You will often see the terms dairy-free and lactose-free on various products and foods. The most serious consideration is for people with a dairy allergy. Lactose-free products are made for people with lactose intolerance but they are usually not suitable for people that have milk allergies or who are on ​a vegan or dairy-free diet. Learn about the differences in these terms.

Dairy-Free Equals Lactose-Free But Not Vice Versa

To understand the difference between these terms, take a look at what they mean:

  • Dairy refers to milk and any part of milk that comes from cows and other mammals. To be dairy-free, a product must have no milk and no part of milk.
  • Lactose is only the sugar component of dairy products.

A product that is dairy-free will not have lactose in it as lactose comes from milk. This means that a product which is dairy-free is also lactose-free, but a product that is lactose-free is not necessarily dairy-free.

Milk Allergies

A person with a milk allergy is often allergic to two protein components of milk—​casein and whey. These are often found in products labeled lactose-free. Removing lactose from milk products may not eliminate these proteins. Typically, the lactase enzyme is added to break down lactose in the milk but does not affect their proteins or other components of the milk. They can still be there unless there are other forms of processing done to remove them.

If you or your child are allergic to dairy or parts of milk other than lactose like casein or whey, then steer clear from lactose-free products and stick to those that are labeled dairy-free or vegan.

There are also differences between the terms dairy-free and non-dairy. Dairy-free is not a term regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is an industry and marketing term. Non-dairy is the regulated term and it actually allows for the presence of milk protein such as casein, whey, and other derivatives.

If you have a milk allergy, non-dairy products may not be safe. 

Vegan, Dairy-Free, and Paleo Diets

If you are following a dairy-free or vegan diet, you will not consume any dairy products, whether or not they are labeled as lactose-free. They still come from animals, are milk-based, and are not dairy-free or vegan. There is some debate among different paleo diet proponents over whether dairy products may be consumed. Some avoid all dairy, others consume some dairy products such as butter, and others don't restrict dairy products.

Lactose Intolerance

If your concern is lactose intolerance, then lactose-free and dairy-free products are both okay for you. While it is good to see lactose-free spelled out, milk is the only dietary source of lactose. You won't have to scour a label to see if it has lactose included if it says it is dairy-free.

Understanding Labels

How do you know what products are safe for people who are dairy-free (which means that they are also lactose-free)? Label-reading is key. Become familiar with dairy-derived ingredients first of all, and then find dairy-free products that you like.