14 Foods You Think Are Dairy-Free—But Aren’t

By | March 30, 2019

Whether you have a legit allergy, you’re vegan, or you just want to avoid it, you might be fooled by some of the foods that contain dairy.

Real reasons to skip milk

Pouring of milk into glass on tableAquarius Studio/Shutterstock

With food allergies on the rise and so many people switching to plant-based diets, it’s no wonder dairy sales are down. People need—or choose—to avoid dairy for a variety of reasons, says Purvi Parikh, MD, allergist/immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network. A true milk allergy, the body’s reaction to a protein in cow’s milk, can be life-threatening. Others have lactose intolerance, which means your body lacks an enzyme that helps you digest dairy products; this causes stomach upset and may give you diarrhea, but it’s not deadly. Still, others choose a vegan lifestyle that precludes dairy for health reasons or because they want to avoid all animal products.

How milk hides

a jug of milk on wooden tableimages72/Shutterstock

Whatever your reason for avoiding dairy, it’s not always as simple as avoiding milk and cheese. A lot of dairy ingredients make their way into foods you’d never expect to find them in, like non-dairy creamer (really). “Reading labels is so important because these items may appear in foods you would not suspect,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. In addition to scanning ingredient lists for any form of milk, cheese, or butter, she says, also keep an eye out for casein (a milk protein that can provoke allergic reactions), caseinate, lactate, lactic acid, lactalbumin, and lactylate. Ingredients are listed by weight, so the higher on the ingredients list they appear, the more of them a product contains (important for people who can tolerate small amounts of dairy). Read on for some surprising milky marauders, and find out more about decoding food labels.

Read More:  Public Health: You’d Be Surprised at How Many Foods Contain Added Sugar


Pat of fresh farm butter with a knife and bread over rustic backgroundVictoria43/Shutterstock

It’s supposed to be an alternative to butter, but margarine, and in some cases shortening, can contain lactose, says Taub-Dix. This might not be an issue if you’re only using small amounts, but when baking, where larger quantities are called for, it’s best to avoid. Margarine, which is often made from soybean oil, may also contain added whey or casein ingredients for flavoring, adds Julie Stefanski, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. “If you’re avoiding dairy due to an allergy, steer clear of any butter substitutes that have cow’s milk ingredients,” she says.

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