February 9, 2011

Is Has What?! "Non-Dairy" and "Dairy-Free": Proceed with Caution

My son, Ryken, has moderate peanut and walnut (a new one!) and severe milk/dairy allergies. In recent years, there has been growing awareness of the serious dangers of peanut allergies so I have always felt a little more at ease about controlling for nuts. It’s dairy that I spend more time looking for.
So much of what is eaten today is processed. Food products have lines and lines of ingredients both common (salt, water) and foreign (methylbenzyl...what??). Companies often add the ever-tasty cheese and whey to make food look and taste better. So when I'm food shopping and scanning labels, the first thing that catches my attention are the words "dairy-free", "non-dairy", and "soy" in traditional dairy products. These should be safe for my kids, right?
Maybe...and maybe not.

The term “non-dairy” is a term that is regulated by the FDA. According to the FDA, a food can carry the label “non-dairy” if it does not contain milk or cream products. However, “non-dairy” foods can contain caseinate, milk protein, which isn’t considered milk or cream. Examples of foods with caseinate are Coffeemate® coffee creamer and Cool Whip®, both of which used to advertise themselves as "non-dairy" . Since people with milk allergies are allergic specifically to milk protein, non-dairy products such as these are still unsafe and should be avoided.
When we first confirmed Ryken's dairy allergies, I perked up upon seeing sliced and shredded rice cheese and soy cheese in the dairy or tofu sections in your local grocery stores. After reading the labels, I realized that these cheese alternatives still contain dairy!
Why do they even make rice and soy cheese if it still has dairy? These products are by and large lactose-free for people with lactose intolerance, who cannot easily digest milk sugar. But breaking down or removing milk sugar does not help with dairy allergies. Milk protein is different; it is what affects milk-allergic people, and it is still in there. Look for vegan cheeses like Daiya or Follow Your Heart's Vegan Gourmet line to be assured that no animal products (including whey and casein) are in your food.
“Dairy-free” may not guarantee safety either. The FDA has not exercised any regulation over the use of the term nor has it defined what "dairy-free" means. Therefore, companies are free to use “dairy-free” and no government group is double-checking the food labels to see if their claims are true.
Bottom line: Always check (and double check!) any product’s list of ingredients to ensure that there are no milk products or by-products listed in the ingredients. I make a habit of even reading the labels of products we regularly buy since manufacturers often change their recipes and businesses (Trader Joe’s, for example) sometimes change suppliers for their generic store brands.
Tips on staying safe Dairy comes in many forms, some not very apparent from their scientific name. Having a dairy ingredient list handy is good for shopping trips and especially eating out. Keep a list in your car(s) so that any caregiver can pull it out as reference. The Kids with Allergies website provides fairly comprehensive lists of milk products, as well as the other most common allergens:
Another good resource is the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. You can register on their website to receive free email alerts for processed foods that have been under-labeled for allergens.
For more info on non-dairy/dairy-free terminology, check out the original article posted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Food Allergy Research and Resource Program.

No comments:

Post a Comment