The Differences Between Lactose-Free And Dairy-Free

It sometimes feels like you need a college degree in nutrition just to go shopping.

The government has all set sorts of rules and regulations governing what manufacturers can and can’t put on food labels, in legislation like the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967 and the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990.

And the FDA regularly takes action against companies making incorrect branding claims, as it did in 2009 when Kellogg’s was forced to stop claiming that Frosted Mini-Wheats improved childrens’ inattentiveness by nearly 20 percent.

Then why are food labels still so confusing?

  • In some cases, companies continue to make misleading claims.
  • In some cases, government guidelines are less strict than they’d appear to be. For example, “light” or “lite” only means that a product has 33% fewer calories or 50% less fat than a “reference” food. If the reference food is loaded with calories, though, that means that the “light” version isn’t necessarily healthy. (And yes, there are rules about using the word “healthy,” too.)
  • In some cases, terms are so confusing that no one could reasonably understand the difference.

Let’s unpack one set of products in that last category.

Are there any differences between “lactose-free” and “dairy-free” foods? And if there are, do they really matter?

Yes, there are important differences. And yes, they definitely matter.

The short answer to our question is that lactose-free products are still dairy foods. Dairy-free products, needless to say, are not dairy foods.

Let’s find out why the differences really are important.

What’s In Milk?

Cow’s milk contains a number of ingredients. The most important are water, fat, minerals, milk proteins (mostly casein and whey protein) and lactose (sometimes called milk sugar). 

As we all know, milk is a dairy product, but it’s far from the only one. Dairy products are considered to be any food made from the milk of mammals; that means that yogurt, goat cheese and gelato are dairy products as well. (Goats are mammals, so goat’s milk is also considered to be dairy.)

That means dairy products naturally contain both lactose and casein. Those are the two ingredients we’re concerned with, when determining if a product is dairy, non-dairy, lactose-free, or dairy-free.

What is Lactose, and What Does Lactose Intolerance Mean?

Put simply, lactose is the sugar that’s naturally contained in milk. It’s known as a disaccharide, which means that it’s a chemical compound composed of two single sugars, galactose and glucose. In order for lactose to be used by the body once it’s been consumed, the glucose and galactose must first be separated in the intestine. After that, the two sugars are each absorbed and can be used.

There’s an enzyme responsible for splitting lactose molecules. It’s called lactase, and it sits in the small intestine waiting for glucose to arrive. If the body doesn’t have enough lactase, though, the lactose can’t be separated and absorbed. Instead, it moves to the colon where bacteria break it down into hydrogen, methane, carbon dioxide and fatty acids – which can cause symptoms ranging from abdominal pain and bloating, to diarrhea and flatulence.

Many readers have certainly guessed the final chapter of this story by now, since those are all symptoms familiar to those who suffer with lactose intolerance. 

So, in simple terms, lactose intolerance isn’t an allergic reaction. It means that a person doesn’t have enough of the enzyme lactase to break down the lactose naturally present in milk, so they experience often-painful and embarrassing symptoms when they consume dairy products.

(There are some who actually do have a milk allergy, but that’s completely different than lactose intolerance. Those people have a food allergy, triggered by either the casein or whey proteins in milk and milk products. A dairy allergy produces different symptoms, as the immune system thinks the milk protein is invading the body; reactions can include hives, vomiting, bloody stools, and in rare cases, anaphylactic shock.)

What causes a lactase deficiency in the body? Most of the time, it’s inherited and rears its head after a child isn’t constantly breastfeeding or drinking milk from a bottle; that condition is known as primary lactase deficiency. Rarer “secondary lactose deficiency” can be caused by diseases of the digestive system like ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, gastroenteritis and Crohn’s disease, lengthy courses of antibiotics, or chemotherapy. Even rarer “congenital lactase deficiency” is a genetic condition as well.

Dealing with Lactose Intolerance

There are two dietary options for those who are lactose intolerant.

One is to simply avoid all dairy products completely; to those people, dairy-free products are crucial if they want to avoid gastrointestinal issues.

The other option is to only consume dairy products which have already had the lactose broken down in advance. These are called lactose-free products – they’re still dairy, but by the time they’re consumed there’s no lactose left in them for the body to digest.

Lactose-free products are created in three different ways.

  • Lactase is added to milk, and the enzyme “pre-digests” the lactose into glucose and galactose. The milk is then ultra-pasteurized to remove the lactase.
  • Milk is run over lactase, so the lactose is converted to glucose and galactose but no lactase is left in the milk.
  • Ultra-filtration physically removes the lactose from milk, without having been broken down at all.

Those processes are more expensive than the usual pasteurization and homogenization normally used to prepare milk for sale. So lactose-free milk (and other lactose-free foods) are naturally more expensive as well. 

The most desirable of the three approaches is ultra-filtration. Since lactase isn’t introduced and lactose isn’t turned into simple sugars, the milk that’s produced tastes the most like “normal” milk.

On the other hand, lactose-free milk created by the first method (the Lactaid available in grocery stores is one of them) tastes quite different than whole milk. That’s because the combination of glucose and galactose taste sweeter than lactose, and also because the heat used for ultra-pasteurization changes the chemical composition of the milk.

Incidentally, you can make your own DIY lactose-free milk. Simply add lactase drops (available in health food stores or on Amazon) to milk and wait 24 hours. It’s less expensive, and will taste more like “real” milk because you obviously don’t use an ultra-pasteurization process at home.

Dairy-Free vs. Non-Dairy

We’ve clarified the differences between lactose-free and dairy-free, but there’s still another distinction to explain: dairy-free vs. non-dairy. Clearly, lactose-free milk is still dairy, since it’s just milk with some of its ingredients removed. To go further, though, we have to go back to one of the milk proteins we’ve mentioned, casein.

Casein is removed from some lactose-free milk products. However, it can still be found in many others, not just lactose-free milk but also lactose-free cheeses, creamers and toppings, in the form of “caseinate milk derivatives.” As we’ve already discussed, there are some who are allergic to casein, while vegans will want to avoid anything considered an “animal product” – so it’s important for them to know whether a product contains any milk ingredients at all.

That’s led to the FDA definition of the two labels. Non-dairy products may still contain milk proteins, but dairy-free products may not contain any dairy ingredients whatsoever. 

Those who want to be completely safe should read labels very carefully, or even better, stick to guaranteed non-dairy alternatives like soy milk or almond milk instead of lactose-free milk, and Italian ice instead of ice cream.

Are Lactose-Free Products as Healthy As Milk?

Generally speaking, yes, they have the same health benefits. Since lactose-free milk is made from cow’s milk, it’s still high in protein and important nutrients like calcium and B vitamins, and it may provide the same weight loss benefits that some experts credit milk with. Lactose-free milk is also gluten-free, just like regular milk; just be sure no problematic ingredients like thickeners have been added to your flavored gluten-free milk.

If you have any questions or doubts about whether lactose-free or dairy-free products are right for you, it’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian first.

Written by Liz Moore


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