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

Female buying dairy products.
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Food labels can be confusing, especially when you're new to purchasing food for a person with allergies or a restricted diet. In the dairy-free community, the terms "dairy-free " and "non-dairy" are often used interchangeably, but the terms are not interchangeable in what they represent on food labels. Dairy-free does not mean the same as nondairy on a food label.

The difference between the terms dairy-free and non-dairy can be huge to a person with a dairy allergy or sensitivity.


Dairy-Free Products

While there is no FDA regulatory explanation of what dairy-free means on food labels, more often than not, a product with this label is, indeed, dairy-free. (The same goes for the term vegan.) While you can feel relatively safe that when a label claims a product is dairy-free, it is dairy-free, people on a dairy-free or vegan diet must still read the label. (Some dairy-derived ingredients may still be present in the food.

Non-Dairy Products

There is an FDA regulatory explanation for the term non-dairy, but the regulation allows for the presence of milk protein such as casein, whey, and other derivatives. This is why you see non-dairy coffee creamers and non-dairy cheeses that actually contain casein, caseinates, whey and other derivatives and are clearly not milk-free. The reason the phrase "non-dairy" came into being in the FDA regulations was the result of the dairy industry, which did not want products that were dairy substitutes to be mistaken for dairy products such as cream and milk.

What Do People Who Follow a Dairy-Free or Vegan Diet Do?

It comes down to doing these things:

  • Read labels. This is essential for anyone with an allergy or intolerance. Familiarize yourself with dairy-derived ingredients and learn to spot them on ingredient labels. Many labels list the allergens the product contains, but some do not.
  • Buy whole foods, rather than prepared foods, to cut out the middle man when it comes to cooking and ensure that your food has not come into contact with dairy ingredients during processing.
  • Do your research and know who you can trust for information and for products.

If you're still figuring out a dairy-free diet, here are a few helpful articles on buying the dairy-free basics: