Lactose Free vs Dairy Free

People avoid lactose or dairy for different reasons and lactose-free and dairy-free products are not equal. Learning the difference is important to those with special dietary needs.

There are a variety of non-dairy "milks" and products ranging from "cheese" to "ice cream" to "yogurt" available at most mainstream supermarkets. Depending on your reasons for choosing them in place of conventional cow's milk, you may need a refresher on the difference between dairy-free and lactose-free products.

Lactose-free milk and milk products are beneficial for people suffering from lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is very common, especially in adults. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about 30 million Americans have some degree of lactose intolerance by the age of 20. Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk products. In order to digest lactose properly, the body produces an enzyme called lactase. In people with lactose intolerance, the body stops producing adequate amounts of lactase, causing symptoms such as bloating, gas, cramps, diarrhea and nausea. Individuals with lactose intolerance may find that they are able to eat small amounts of products that contain lactose without experiencing symptoms. Sometimes they may be able to tolerate products such as yogurt or goat's milk more easily than cow's milk. Lactase tablets are also available for lactose intolerant individuals to help them digest lactose.

If a product is labeled lactose-free, that does not mean it is necessarily dairy-free. People who seek dairy-free products may be vegan or have an allergy to dairy. Vegans avoid all animal products, including eggs and dairy, for a variety of reasons, including health, religious or ethical views. Individuals with a dairy allergy are allergic to either one or both of the milk proteins, casein and whey. Milk allergies are more common in children and some people grow out of them. Symptoms may include hives, wheezing and vomiting, and in some severe cases, anaphylaxis. The only sure way to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid all products containing dairy. Vegans and people who have or are caring for someone who has a dairy allergy should become comfortable with reading food labels because whey and casein are often present in unexpected places, including some canned tuna, certain protein powders and some non-dairy cheese products.

When it comes to purchasing lactose-free and diary-free foods, it's best to read the ingredient list on the food label so you can identify things like casein in a product. However, once you know what ingredients to avoid, it can be fun to try the various lactose- or  dairy-free options your grocery store has available. Experiment with coconut, almond, soy or hemp milks, ice creams and yogurts like So Delicious products (a personal favorite; I avoid diary due to lactose intolerance) which offer a variety of dairy-free frozen dessert options, as well as milk and yogurt options and Silk products which offer a variety of dairy free milk options. There are also a variety of sliced, shredded and cream cheese products available like those  from GoVeggie! which come  in lactose-free and dairy-free options which are color labeled depending on the line. This makes for easy, worry-free purchasing.

What are your favorite lactose-free or diary -free products?
Keep Reading

Next Up

Dairy-Free Creamers

If you don’t do dairy but love the silky mouthfeel of creamer in your coffee, check out these six dairy-free options.

Dairy-Free Coconut "Whipped Cream"

Turn a can of coconut milk into rich, creamy, but completely dairy free whipped "cream."

Taste Test: Dairy-Free Ice Cream

These are our picks for the best dairy-free ice cream America’s churning out today

A Dairy-Free Cheese That Everyone Can Love

It's not surprising that people who can't eat dairy are delighted when they discover this nut cheese. More surprising is that cheese connoisseurs enjoy it too.

Dairy-Free Coffee Drinks for Your Morning Buzz

These dairy-free coffee drinks make a great morning alternative.

The Veggie Table: Dairy-Free Ice Cream

Make homemade ice cream dairy free by substituting coconut milk for milk or cream.

Free of Gluten and Dairy, But Always Full of Flavor

In her latest cookbook, Silvana’s Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Kitchen, Silvana Nardone shares her culinary secrets for this special diet.

Food Network Apps

In the Kitchen

Get over 70,000 FN recipes on all your mobile devices.

Facebook Messenger

Ask our bot for recipes, meal ideas and daily food trivia.

Amazon Echo

Just say "Alexa, enable Food Network skill" to get started.