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Dairy-Free vs. Non-Dairy: What’s the Difference?


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Both the terms “dairy-free” and “non-dairy” are common in product labeling. To most people, the terms mean the same thing, but they often confuse those who are trying to avoid dairy products. So, what do they mean? Is there a difference between them? What do they say about the ingredient of the product? We’ll clear everything up below.

Meaning of the Terms


There is no legal interpretation of what the term dairy-free should mean. The failure of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to assign a definition to the term means that it may indicate different things to different manufacturers. Therefore, products labeled as dairy-free may contain small amounts of dairy products or milk derivatives. In contrast, others may not contain dairy products at all. The only sure way for consumers to ascertain the right ingredients is by carefully reading the ingredients label.

Research conducted by the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program (FARRP) confirmed the above confusion in product labeling. On sampling products with dairy-free labeling, they realized that a number contained milk or its derivatives. Therefore, the term has no universal meaning. Consumers looking to avoid dairy products may have to dig deeper into the ingredients list.

Generally, dairy-free labeling is associated with foods that are named similar to dairy products but contain no dairy ingredients. Some examples of dairy-free products include peanut butter, soy cheese, coconut milk, among others.


The term non-dairy can be traced back to FDA regulation. They defined the term to mean any product containing 0.5% milk or lower by weight in milk protein (casein/caseinates). Although the FDA has since scrapped the definition from their regulations, the term’s general understanding is referring to coffee creamers and other products containing caseinate.

Ingredients and Processing

The ingredient label does not say anything about the processing. In most cases, manufacturers produce both dairy-free and non-dairy products in the same plant. Producing both products under the same roof increases the chances of allergen contamination to dairy-free products. Therefore, it is advisable for people with severe milk allergy cases to contact the manufacturers to establish whether such possibility of dairy contamination exists.

Factors That Influence Which Term is Used

Most manufacturers prefer using the term “non-dairy” instead of “dairy-free,” even when labeling products that contain no dairy. They argue that the term is more familiar to consumers. Others think that the term allows some latitude for the product to contain small quantities of dairy such as milk protein in case of legal liabilities.

Food Labeling Regulation

Although the terms non-dairy and dairy-free can be confusing, the sure way to find the right product is by reading the ingredient list. FDA regulations require product labeling to be truthful and non-misleading. That means that the ingredient labeling will contain the product’s actual ingredients regardless of the terms used on the front label.

The regulation requires that food containing caseinate include a parenthetical statement identifying its sources. Again, suppose the product is identified as non-diary but contains sodium caseinate. In that case, an intermediate-term should be included indicating it’s a milk derivative.

Bottom line

Finding the right product amid the confusion of terms and the lack of universal meaning can be challenging. The best way is to read the ingredient list to ascertain the content of the product. Where there is still doubt, calling the manufacture should clarify the ingredient.

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