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Why Going Dairy-Free Is Such A Challenge and What to Avoid

Over the last few weeks, we have been taking a close look at food sensitivities and allergies. So far we have explored the difference between allergies and sensitivities, the signs to look out for in yourself or your children, how to keep your allergic child safe when you are not there to keep an eye on what they eat. Last time, we turned our attention to specific foodstuffs that commonly cause problems by examining why wheat is such a problem for so many people. This time, in part 5, we will continue that theme by focusing on problems with dairy products and how to avoid them. To catch up on the previous articles in this series, you can read the following:

One of the challenges many people face when they need to avoid certain food allergens such as wheat or dairy is when they don’t know all the terms for products derived from that foodstuff and wind up consuming it inadvertently and having a reaction to it. One of the foods that many people are allergic or sensitive to is dairy and, as dairy products are so ubiquitous in our diet, it can be a very difficult thing to avoid. This is a topic that is dear to my heart as I have a child who has a deadly allergy to dairy products so I write this article not only for all people with foods allergies and sensitivities and their care-givers but for all the family members, teachers and friends who may feed my son at some point –   and for Trey, as he continues to learn how to navigate the world with deadly food allergies.  So, first of all, let’s look at exactly what we mean when we talk about dairy and dairy products.

What Is Dairy?

One of the most common concerns about having a dairy allergy is understanding exactly what constitutes a dairy product.  Are eggs dairy? What about cheese or goat’s milk? Let’s clear that up right away:

‘Dairy’ specifically refers to ANY products derived from cow’s milk.

That means no cheese, no milk, no yogurt and no butter if they are made with cow’s milk. However, eggs are absolutely fine.

Some people who are sensitive to cow’s milk (who have an IgG reaction to it) are able to tolerate goat, sheep or buffalo products because the protein and lactose ratios are different and therefore may be less reactive for some individuals.

However, for people who are allergic to cow’s milk (those who have an IgE anaphylactic reaction to it), the proteins in goat, sheep or buffalo milk are similar enough to those in cow’s milk to trigger a severe or possibly deadly reaction. For this reason, for the purposes of this article, I will include all cow, buffalo, goat and sheep milk products under the heading of ‘dairy’.

The Problem with Dairy

Little Miss Muffet

Sat on a tuffet

Eating her curds and whey

Along came a spider

Who sat down beside her

And frightened Miss Muffet away

We all know this nursery rhyme, but have you ever wondered what exactly ‘curds and whey’ are?

Well, let me explain. Curds and whey are both dairy products. When milk curdles it separates into two distinct parts (one solid, one liquid) – the solid bits are the curds (which can be used to make cheese), the liquid is the whey. There are two proteins found in milk – casein and whey – and for people who are allergic or sensitive to dairy, it is primarily these that trigger an immune reaction. Casein makes up over 75% of milk protein and is the major component of ‘curds’. Whey is the liquid bit and makes up over 20% of milk protein.

There are four kinds of whey protein that may show up on an ingredients list:

As well as protein, milk also contains fats and sugars and for someone who is lactose intolerant, it is the sugar (or lactose) that is the problem.

 Lactose Intolerance

People who are lactose intolerant do not have the enzyme lactase that breaks down the milk sugar lactose into glucose and galactose. If you do not have this enzyme then you could experience a number of symptoms, the main ones are:

Note: Lactose intolerance is not a dairy allergy, however people with dairy allergies do need to avoid lactose as an ingredient in foods.


There are blood tests that can determine if you have either an IgE allergy or an IgG sensitivity to cow’s and goat’s milk. To find out more about this you can read part 1 of this series. If you are concerned about lactose intolerance you can also be tested for that with a hydrogen breath test, a blood test or a stool test.

In addition to the Ig E and IgG blood test, there is also what is known as a ‘cow’s milk sub-fraction test’ that tests your reaction to each of the 5 milk proteins – casein, whey and the 4 subsets of the whey protein. By doing this test you can find out exactly which proteins your immune system is attacking.  I recommend this only for people who have had a positive result for IgG sensitivities and not those who have the more severe IgE reaction.

If you have a problem with dairy products (or suspect you do), you will need to get into the habit of checking food labels for the various milk proteins you will need to avoid. To help you know which foods to watch out for, here’s a list of common dairy products you will need to avoid:

Note: You can get trace amounts of milk in milk-free products due to cross-contamination from processing equipment shared with milk-containing products.

In Summary

Milk is such a ubiquitous foodstuff that being allergic or sensitive to it can feel extremely daunting and limiting when it comes to what you can and can’t eat. However, because so many people are in the same boat, things are getting better and there are many alternatives available – look out for non-dairy milk alternatives such as coconut, soy, rice or nut milks and yogurts, for example.

With time and patience, you will find the alternatives that work for you – and you will feel so much better for it!

If you know or suspect that you are allergic or sensitive to dairy products you might want to consider my Food Allergies & Sensitivities package

If you have any comments, stories, questions or tips to share please do so using the comments box below. If you want to be sure not to miss future articles in this series or on other aspects of health, you can subscribe and receive them direct to your inbox.


Dr. Maura Scanlan

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