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

Female buying dairy products.
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The right vocabulary

Food labels can be confusing, especially if you're new to purchasing foods for a person with allergies or a restricted diet. In the dairy-free community, we often use dairy-free, non-dairy, and lactose-free interchangeably, but are these terms actually interchangeable in terms of what they represent on food labels. Is Dairy-Free the same as Non-Dairy on a food label?

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

Here's the short of it:

While there is no actual FDA regulatory explanation of what Dairy-Free means on food labels, more often than not, a product with this label will, indeed, be Dairy-Free. (The same goes for the term Vegan.) So what this means is that while you can feel relatively safe that when a label claims a product to be Dairy-Free it is dairy-free, label-reading is still an essential for those on a dairy-free or vegan diet. (Read through these dairy-derived ingredients to make sure that none are present in your food.)

On the other hand, 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'll 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" even came into being in the FDA regulations was a result of the dairy industry that did not want products that were dairy substitutes to be mistaken ​for dairy products such as cream and milk.)

So what are people who follow a dairy-free or vegan diet to do? ​

Really, it comes down to doing two things:

  • Reading labels is essential to anyone with an allergy or intolerance. Familiarize yourself with dairy-derived ingredients and learn to spot them on ingredient labels. Many labels will list the allergens the product contains, but some will not.
  • Buying whole foods cuts out the middle man when it comes to cooking and ensures that your food has not come into contact with dairy ingredients during processing.
  • Do your research and know who you can trust, both for information as well as products.

If you're still figuring it all out, here are just a few helpful suggestions on buying the dairy-free basics: