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

Man shopping for milk
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Dairy-Free and Lactose-Free are terms that we often see these days on a various products and foods for various diets, including the dairy-free diet, the vegan diet, paleo, and others. But what is the difference? Is there one?

Yes, there is a difference, and it's pretty big to any person with a dairy allergy! Although there are lactose-free products that are made for people with lactose intolerance, these are usually not suitable for people that have milk allergies.

So what's the difference?

Well, it comes down to what we usually refer to as dairy versus what lactose is, which is just one part of dairy. Dairy refers to milk and any part of milk that comes from cows and other mammals. So to be dairy-free, a product must have no milk and no part of milk. Lactose, on the other hand, is merely an ingredient in milk, or a part of milk. It is the sugar component of dairy products. So a product that is dairy-free will not have lactose in it. What this means is that a product which is dairy-free is also lactose-free, but a product that is lactose-free is not necessarily dairy-free. Make sense?

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 because although they are part of dairy in the same way that lactose is part of dairy, they are separate from one another.

A product can remove the lactose but the rest of the milk can still be there! (This is why a dairy-free or vegan person will still not purchase lactose-free dairy products, because they are milk-based and thus, not dairy-free or vegan.)

If your only concern is lactose, then lactose-free and dairy-free are both okay for you.

But if you 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. And, while you're looking up label specifics for the dairy-free diet, you might want to check out this article on the difference between dairy-free and non-dairy. It may surprise you!

So how do you know what products are safe for people who are dairy-free (which means that they are also lactose-free)? Well, label-reading is key. Become familiar with dairy-derived ingredients first of all, and then find dairy-free products that you like! Here are some of mine: