Dairy allergy and intolerance

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Dairy allergy and intolerance

Dairy products are an important part of a healthy diet: most of us drink milk or eat other dairy foods like yogurt, cheese, or cream, daily. What’s more, dairy finds its way into a whole host of prepared foods - ready meals and sauces, desserts, bread and biscuits, to name but a few.

So what can you do if you’re one of the increasing number of people who are allergic or intolerant to dairy? Read on to find out. 

Allergy vs. intolerance

An allergy is a type of intolerance. Milk allergy occurs when your body reacts to a protein in milk as if it’s an ‘enemy’, and sets up an immune response, creating symptoms such as swelling/tingling of the lips, rashes, urticaria (hives) and in the most severe cases, anaphylaxis. It can also be responsible for eczema, particularly in babies and young children. Children are more likely to be allergic than adults, but they often grow out of it.

Milk intolerance can cause sickness and diarrhoea. While this is not a true immune system response to an allergy, it can be a reaction to milk proteins. This kind of reaction can also be due to lactose intolerance, where the body fails to make the enzyme lactase that is needed to break down lactose, the sugar found in milk. 

If you suspect you or your child might be intolerant, don’t simply go it alone and cut out dairy altogether. It’s an important source of many nutrients, especially the calcium needed for healthy bones, so you’ll need to find appropriate alternative sources.

Consult your doctor to get yourself properly diagnosed – and make sure your symptoms are not due to something else. 

Living with dairy allergy or intolerance

If you have a milk or dairy allergy, which is a negative reaction to the protein in milk, then you’ll have to avoid all milks and milk products, such as butter, cream, yogurt, fromage frais and cheeses.

Food producers are required by law to label all ingredients, especially those which include allergens, so check the ingredients lists and look out for Allergy Advice boxes on the back of food packaging, which Tesco and most companies provide, to see if the product contains milk or lactose. 

Ingredients to look out for in particular are casein, whey and lactose. Goats or sheep’s milk should not be used as a replacement for cow’s milk as the makeup of these products are similar to cow’s milk and may still cause an allergic reaction, as they also contain lactose. 

If you’re lactose intolerant, which means you cannot digest the lactose – or sugar – in milk, you may not have to avoid milk products entirely. Some people can get away with just a little – you’ll need to find what you can tolerate by trial and error. You can also buy some milk, yogurt, ice cream, spreads and cheeses, which have the lactose reduced or removed – they will be clearly labelled.

Dairy substitutes

If you have to avoid dairy, try these substitutes:

Instead of milk

Milk made from almonds, oats, rice, coconut or soya

Normal soya milk is not suitable for infants under one year of age; however soya milk infant formulas, which are fortified with vitamins and minerals, may be given to children over six months of age. 

Instead of dairy yogurt, creams and desserts

There are a wide range of soya yogurts and cream as well as soya-based custards and ice creams. 

Instead of butter or buttery spreads

Dairy-free spreads - many ‘olive’ or ‘sunflower’ spreads have dairy ingredients as well, so check the ingredients carefully. Vegetable oils (e.g. olive, sunflower etc), which can be used in cooking.

Instead of cheeses:

Dairy free cheese substitutes hard and soft spreadable types with different flavours. These are usually made from soya – they can’t be called cheeses but they will be clearly labelled.

Silken tofu – a smooth curd made from soya beans is also a good soft cheese substitute in cooking.

For other products you should be able to find milk-free alternatives for example, for example there are special ranges of dairy-free chocolates.

Using dairy substitutes

Don’t expect substitutes to taste exactly like dairy products. For example, lactose-free milk tastes slightly sweeter than cow’s milk. And soya and other milk substitutes are often slightly sweetened, however unsweetened versions are available. You might find that you prefer one kind in your tea but another in your cereal – there is plenty of choice.

Although lactose-free milk can be used in the same way as ‘regular’ cow’s milk, other milk substitutes (especially soya) are less heat-stable, so may ‘split’ if you heat them or add them to hot drinks. Check the labels for the best way to use them.

As soya and other non-dairy milks don’t naturally contain calcium,  look for ones that are fortified, if you don’t think you are getting enough calcium from other sources.

Getting your nutrients

Milk is a valuable source of calcium in the diet, and we need this mineral to build and maintain healthy bones, reducing our risk of osteoporosis in later life. If you’re avoiding regular dairy products, you’ll need to find alternative sources. Lactose-free milk is still a good calcium source (only the lactose has been removed), as are soya and other milk substitutes, which have been fortified with calcium. Green leafy vegetables, such as kale, broccoli and watercress, are also good, as well as almonds, dried figs, bread and anything made with fortified flour, and canned fish which include bones, such as sardines and pilchards.

For more information on milk allergy and lactose intolerance, visit Allergy UK’s website at www.allergyuk.org or call their helpline: 01322 619898.

For more information about allergies, visit our allergy fact sheet page.

For dishes made with non-dairy alternatives, try these recipes for Toasted Almond and Rice Pudding, Chicken Tikka Skewers and Pasta Bake.

For dishes that don’t contain dairy, try these recipes for Tuna Pasta Salad, Apple, Pork and Ginger Stir-Fry and Aloo Chana Masala.

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