Dairy-Free: How to read food labels
Updated: Jun 4
If you are dairy-free, reading labels is a must. It would be easier if by law Australian companies had to have a clear allergen statement- but this is not the case. There is potential for confusion.
Foods sold in Australia have to legally indicate SOMEWHERE on the label if it contains dairy. It is common for foods to sport an allergen statement which clearly tells you if dairy is present, but not always.
Dairy is one of the top allergens that have to be declared according to Australian law. The other top allergens are egg, soy, wheat, fish, seafood, tree nut, peanut and lupin.
When dairy is present in a food, it may occur for the following reasons:
- Dairy may be in a food as an actual ingredient
- An additive may be used which is made from dairy
- Dairy may have been used as a 'processing agent' so won't be an actual ingredient
Any of these mean that the food contains dairy and need to be avoided if following a dairy free diet. This is especially important of dairy allergies as small amounts can cause significant, and for some, life threatening consequences.
How can you tell if a food contains dairy?
1. Allergy Statement or a 'contains...' statement
Many companies opt for a statement which spells out clearly if any allergens such as dairy are present. Life would be easier if the labelling laws directed all food products to do this as it is so consumer friendly, but this is currently not the case.
2. Ingredient list
Other ways dairy can be declared is via the food ingredient list. All packaged foods, by law, have to have a food ingredient list. Ingredients are listed from greatest to smallest by weight.
All dairy ingredients need to be listed
Usually companies will indicate which of the ingredients are dairy by bolding the ingredients and/or stating the ingredients come from dairy in brackets next to the ingredient(s).
For example: Uncle Toby's Oats- berry quick sachets
Ingredients: Whole Grain Rolled Oats ( 74%), Sugar, Skim Milk Powder, Blueberry Fruit Pieces [Blueberry (1.9%), sugar, tapioca starch, Humectant (Glycerol), Vegetable Gum (pectin), Rice Flour, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Wheat Flour], Freeze Dried Berries (1%) [Raspberries, Strawberries], Flavour.
The Allergens are bolded: oats, wheat and milk. No allergen statement clearly stating that dairy was present was seen on the packet.
3. Dairy ingredients can be listed without reference to dairy, but just listing the ingredient
This requires a working knowledge of the different 'dairy words' which is a potential issue if you are not aware that 'caseinate' for example = dairy.
Dairy can be listed as any of the following words:
buttermilk or cultured buttermilk
casein or caseinate (eg ammonium caseinate, rennet casein))
low fat milk
non fat milk solids
whey or whey powder or whey protein or whey solids or sweet whey
NOTE re lactose: Lactose = milk sugar and does not contain the protein however there can be some contamination with milk protein. Lactose in medications is considered safe.
This requires the consumer (= you) to know that any of these words when checking a food product is dairy free.
Luckily, most companies do make it easier by declaring dairy as an allergen in an allergy statement, having a 'contains dairy' statement or making it clear in the ingredient list. Despite this, it is a good idea to be very familiar with all the words that mean dairy.
Having a working knowledge of ingredients that = dairy is a good idea when reading labels. Usually companies make it clear if their product contains dairy BUT until it is legally required, knowing the dairy ingredients is recommended.
What about 'may contain' statements?
"May contain' statements cause such confusion! This statement is voluntary but at the end of the day is not at all useful. This is why..
The idea behind the "May contain..." statement is to indicate if there is a risk of accidental contamination of an allergen such as dairy.
This is what actually happens:
1. Companies may evaluate risk of allergen contamination of their products
Proper evaluation guides the company as to the risk of dairy contamination. Consequently a 'may contain' statement may or may not be declared depending on the assessed risk.
This information is very useful for the consumer.
2. Companies may choose not to evaluate risk of allergen contamination of their products
These companies may choose not to evaluated the risk of dairy contamination and so either no risk statement is made or they may decide to make a 'may contain' statement just in case. Note: the statement is not made on a basis of proper evaluation to determine actual risk.
This information is not at all useful to the consumer.
At the end of the day, a product without the 'may contain' statement may carry the same risk as another product with the 'may contain' statement- there is currently no way of the consumer being able to determine actual risk.
Until it can be a requirement of law for all companies to properly assess their risk and make a risk statement accordingly, this claim is not at all useful.
Whether you avoid a food based in this claim is personal preference only.
Take Home Messages
AWAYS check ingredient lists each and every time you buy food as ingredients can (and do) change without warning. This is especially important for dairy allergy.
When avoiding dairy, companies tend to make it easy for the consumer by providing this information using an allergen statement or bolding the dairy ingredients or using the word DAIRY in brackets next to the ingredient or both of the above or any combination of the above.
Although it does not often happen, any ingredients that mean dairy such as "caseinate' may just be used in the ingredient list with no reference to dairy. In this case, a knowledge of the words that mean dairy is essential.
The 'may contain' statement offers little value in determine actual risk of dairy contamination and at this point in time remains a personal preference choice.
1 National Allergy Strategy. Milk Allergen card, 2015. Accessed from: https://allergyfacts.org.au/images/pdf/milkf.pdf. Accessed on: 26/5/19
2. Personal communication: FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand), Scientist/researcher, May 2019.