What is the difference between lactose-free and dairy-free?

Whether it’s because of lactose intolerance, an illness that requires avoiding certain foods, or just dietary preferences, we often must change the way we eat. That’s why it’s important to understand food labels. Lactose-free and dairy-free may sound similar, but they do not mean the same thing.


Here’s everything you need to know to understand the difference (and the nuances!) between both expressions.


Dairy-free or lactose-free

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, a sugar found naturally in milk and most dairy products. Some people don’t produce enough lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose into small pieces. This deficiency prevents the body from digesting lactose, which results in uncomfortable digestive symptoms such as gas, bloating and diarrhea. These are the people for whom lactose-free dairy products have been put on the market.

However, people who must avoid dairy products due to a medical condition, such as an allergy to the proteins in cow’s milk, are in a much more serious—even deadly—situation. The allergen in question is often whey or casein, proteins that are found in milk and dairy products. These products must be avoided at all costs, even when they are lactose-free.


Lactose-free dairy products

Most lactose-intolerant people can tolerate minimal amounts of regular dairy products. However, it is difficult to accurately determine how much is too much, which is why lactose-free dairy products are a logical and practical choice.


Several methods have been developed to make your favourite dairy products lactose-free. The most common one is to reproduce lactase (the famous digestive enzyme) in a lab and add it to dairy products during processing. At the grocery store, these foods are easily identifiable because they have “lactose-free” written on the packaging.


Dairy-free products

Today, there are many dairy substitutes for people who cannot consume or choose not to consume dairy. These plant-based products may have “dairy-free” written on the packaging, but this is not mandatory.


However, because milk and milk by-products are priority food allergens subject to very strict regulations in Canada, disclosing them on food packaging is mandatory. Products that contain milk will have “may contain” or “contains” indicated on the packaging immediately after the ingredient list. This is how people who are allergic to milk reduce the risk of severe allergic reactions.


Lactose-free, but with good nutritional value

Surprisingly, the nutritional value of lactose-free dairy products is exactly the same as regular dairy products! They contain the same nutrients, including calcium, protein, vitamins and minerals. In addition, according to the latest scientific research, lactose-free products provide the same nutritional benefits with regard to bone health and chronic illness prevention.


However, the nutritional value in dairy-free plant-based foods can vary significantly from one product to the next. These foods are usually prepared with dried vegetables, grain or oleaginous fruits and must often be enriched with vitamins, minerals or vegetable protein powder, such as pea protein. This is the only way to obtain anything close to the nutritional benefits of milk and dairy products as we know them.

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