lactose vs dairy free

Is lactose-free the same as dairy-free?

Wendy Haaf

Written by: Wendy Haaf

Updated: May 30th, 2023

Navigating the grocery aisles can be especially confusing if you’ve recently been diagnosed with lactose intolerance, or another condition that’s managed by avoiding certain ingredients and/or foods. For people who have recently discovered that they have this digestive issue, a common question is whether lactose-free and dairy-free mean the same thing.

The short answer is no, but of course it’s more complicated than that. Here’s what you need to know.

Dairy-Free vs Lactose-Free

People who have to avoid dairy foods for medical reasons typically have an allergy to one of two proteins found in milk—whey or casein. And because eating a food you’re allergic to can have serious, and sometimes life-threatening consequences, people with a milk allergy have to be vigilant about avoiding dairy and other foods that contain these milk proteins.

cramping from drinking milk

Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, is much less serious, although the symptoms can certainly cause misery. Unlike an allergy, where the immune system attacks the person’s own body, an intolerance is due to a difficulty breaking down or absorbing a certain component of food. “Lactose is the carbohydrate in milk and dairy products,” explains Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto registered dietitian and nutrition writer.

Lactose—a carbohydrate in milk—is the offender for someone with lactose intolerance. Due to a lack of lactase—an enzyme that ‘chops’ lactose down into smaller ‘building blocks’ called simple sugars—lactose remains ‘whole’, so the small intestine can’t absorb it. Instead, it passes into the large intestine. Here, it’s fermented by bacteria, producing gas and fluids, which is what leads to those not-so-pleasant symptoms of lactose intolerance such as gas, bloating and diarrhea.

What Can I Eat if I’m Lactose Intolerant?

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about which foods you can eat, and which you might want to avoid if you have lactose intolerance.

Dairy-Free Foods

Foods that are dairy free contain no milk or milk ingredients‚ which include casein, whey, and lactose. That means if you’re cutting out lactose because you’re intolerant to it, consuming dairy-free foods shouldn’t result in uncomfortable symptoms.

In Canada, the claim ‘dairy-free’ or ‘non-dairy’ can’t be used on the labels of products containing any milk derivatives. And these substances don’t always have names that the average person would recognize as being made from milk. For example, butter, milk fat, yogurt, sour cream, hydrolyzed milk protein, milk solids, cheese and cheese curds are all milk products—as of course, are casein, whey, and lactose. But so are a long list of other compounds, including lactalbumin, lactoferrin, lactoglobulin, caseinate, and casein/rennet casein.

Lactose-Free Dairy Products

In contrast to dairy-free foods, which are made without milk or other dairy, lactose free foods aren’t necessarily made without lactose. Some brands of lactose-free milk, for instance, are filtered to remove the lactose. However, another, much easier method is used to produce other brands of lactose-free milk—adding the enzyme lactase. (Either type of lactose-free milk can then be used to produce a lactose-free cheese, such as as Black Diamond Lactose Free cheese products including the recently launched Lactose Free Marble cheddar sticks). Lactase splits lactose into two, smaller sugar molecules—glucose and galactose. In addition to rendering the product lactose free, this process does something else, as well.

“Because the lactose is broken down into simple sugars, that can make lactose free milk taste sweeter than regular milk,” notes Schwartz, “but it doesn’t actually contain more sugar.”

And since lactose-free dairy products are still, after all, dairy products, they contain the milk proteins whey and casein. However, needless to say, lactose-free products are an excellent choice for people with lactose intolerance. You may also want to experiment with consuming regular dairy along with a lactase supplement. (Many people find one type works better than others, so you may need to try a few different brands).

Naturally Lactose-Free Foods

Many foods are naturally lactose free—particularly minimally- or unprocessed:

And while they vary in nutritional value, plant-based milks (such as coconut, almond, soy and oat) and cheeses (some of which are nut-based) also contain no lactose.

It’s also worth noting that despite names that sound as if they’re related to lactose, according to Dietitians of Canada, the following ingredients do not in fact contain it:

Foods High in Lactose (Avoid or Limit)

dairy products

So what are the foods you should avoid if you’re cutting out lactose? Here are some of the most common ones.

Hopefully now that you have a better understanding of where lactose can hide and which foods are high in lactose, you’ll be able to enjoy eating a variety of delicious, healthy foods while keeping uncomfortable symptoms at bay.

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