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What is the Difference Between "Non-Dairy" and "Dairy-Free"?

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Female buying dairy products.
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Question: What is the Difference Between "Non-Dairy" and "Dairy-Free"?
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?
Answer: 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:

  • Are Eggs Dairy?
  • Are Wine, Beer, and Liquor Dairy-Free?
  • Best Dairy-Free Cheeses
  • Best Dairy-Free Ice Creams
  • Best Dairy-Free Milk Alternatives
    1. About.com
    2. Food
    3. Dairy Free Cooking
    4. Dairy-Free Basics
    5. What Is the Difference Between Non-Dairy & Dairy-Free?

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