Lactose Intolerance
Hidden Lactose
What Is Whey?
At The Market
Eating Out
About NoWhey.org

Shopping Lactose Free 

If I said that lactose is hiding in every section of the supermarket except the produce section, I'd be lying.  Because I can usually find many sources of lactose there as well!  

Lactose is everywhere in the market.  There is only one sure way to shop lactose-free and that's to read every ingredient label, every time!  Just when you get used to a product not containing any lactose, the manufacturer is sure to change the recipe and throw some in.  A case in point, Country Crock margarine in the tubs used to be non-dairy.  Mild LI problems started to appear after many years of being essentially symptom-free.  Looking for the cause I discovered that the big tub of margarine now contains whey.

So you're going to have to resign yourself to becoming a chronic label-reader.  But if you don't know what ingredients contain lactose, reading the label won't help much.  So what follows is a short course in label ingredients.  If you want the extended version, Steven Carper's excellent Planet Lactose site has a comprehensive list.

Label Ingredients 101:

Below is a list of ingredients you are likely to see on an ingredient label that contain lactose.  Personally I like to avoid products that contain lactose in any amount, but then I consider myself severely lactose intolerant.  If you feel you can tolerate some lactose, then look for the position of the ingredient on the list.  High up means that there is likely lots of lactose in the food.  Low down there will be less.  Similarly, look for multiple ingredients in the list.  Last, if an ingredient is almost all lactose, such as the big offender whey, then it could spell trouble even if way down on the list.

Here's a typical ingredients label showing whey as one of the ingredients.  You find whey everywhere!  This is the ingredient list for a teriyaki chicken rice bowl.

Here's another label of a candy that contains whole milk, whey and lactose! A triple whammy!  You may think I had to search far and wide for this label.  Nope.  It was on a tub of candy sitting on someone's desk that I work with.  

Remember this list is for ingredients on a food label, not for the product itself.  A list dealing with these (and more) items as stand-alone foods follows this one.

Milk (whole, reduced or non-fat) or Cream:  If the product is a liquid (or semi-solid like caramel) it may list milk or cream as an ingredient.  More often than not it will list...

Dry or Instant Non-fat (or whole or reduced fat) Milk:  This is almost all lactose.  

Dairy Solids:  Essentially a euphemism for dried milk.

Whey (sweet, acid, reduced lactose, dried, protein etc.):  You find whey in the least likely places, and it's almost anywhere.  But whey is almost all lactose. For more information about whey, see the whey page.

Cheese (any form):  Can contain varying amounts of lactose.  

Yogurt (dried or otherwise):  Contains lactose.

Butter:  Butter itself contains little to no lactose, so butter as an ingredient is likely to contribute a negligible amount of lactose to a food.  Even I won't reject a food if it has butter in it.

Margarine:  Now this is a different story!  Most margarine contains whey.  These days most labels are listing margarine's separate ingredients, but if you just see margarine on the label, then I would avoid the product as it likely contains whey.

Sour Cream (dry or otherwise):  Contain lactose.

Anything that ends in Lactylate:  This does not contain lactose.

Coconut Milk:  Does not usually contain lactose, but some brands reportedly do.

Shopping Tips:

The Kosher Story

Separation of milk (milchig) and meat (fleischig) products is a part of the dietary laws called "Kosher" by those of the Jewish faith.  In very orthodox homes (and restaurants) it is common to have two sets of dishes and cookware - one for meat, the other for dairy - so there was no possibility that the two could mix.  (This is a holdover from times when most utensils were wood and pots were porous clay.)  By themselves, meat and dairy can be kosher (if they adhere to a laundry-list of specifications), but mix the two and they're not.  I'm telling you this because in some places you'll hear that if it's kosher, it contains no milk.  That's simply not true.

There is a third class of foods called "pareve" (or sometimes parve).  These foods are "neutral" and can be eaten with either milk or meat.  Vegetables are a good example.

(For completeness, the fourth class is called "trayfe" which means "forbidden".  Foods like pork, shellfish and certain organ meats fall into this category and aren't supposed to be eaten at any time.  There's much more to "kosher" - like garments can't be made from combinations of linen and wool - but the above are the important food facts of kosher.)

So why am I telling you all this?  Because the Jewish community has succeeded in getting a lot of foods labeled for their kosher status.  The letter U with a circle around it means the food is certified kosher (the U stands for the Orthodox Union).  If a D follows (or the word dairy) that means it's Kosher dairy and probably contains milk (but not always, see later).  

If  P follows,  that means it's either Kosher for Passover or Pareve.  There's no way to tell what the P means without reading the ingredients.  Anything marked Parve (or Pareve) is like striking gold for those of us who are LI.  Pareve by definition means that the product can't contain any milk products.  Sometimes you'll just see the word Pareve without the U.   That's fine too.  

Now sometimes a package will be marked with a UD or some other indication that it is kosher dairy, but try as you might, you can't find any evidence that there's a milk product in the package.  This means that even though the product contains no milk, it was processed on equipment that is also used to process products that do contain milk (which is why I told you about the separate sets of dishes).  This is a concern to an orthodox Jew (or someone who has severe milk allergies) but for the LI person, it probably means this product is safe to eat.  By the way, the most common place you see this is on baked goods or cake mixes and pre-made frosting.  Just be sure to double, no triple check the ingredients.  It could also mean that is contains a dairy-derived product, like sodium caseinate, which contains no lactose.

If you want to know more about kosher, the Orthodox Union has lots of info on their Kosher Primer page.

Milk Products

I'm sure I don't have to tell you to avoid anything with obvious milk or cheese in it.  There are lactose-free milks now on the market (and available almost anywhere) as well as lactose-reduced milks.  Rarely available is lactose-free cheese.

Milk substitutes:  My all-around favorite is Mocha Mix.  It used to be only available on the west coast, but now I understand you can get it all over the states.  I think it has the best flavor. (Update on 6/1/07:  Mocha Mix has virtually disappeared in Northern California.)  It's essentially a coffee creamer, but I also use it on cereal and as a general milk replacement in cooking.  It also comes in "lite" and non-fat versions and these may be more to your liking on cereal etc.  If these are not available, just try adding water to the regular Mocha Mix.  There now seems to be lots of competition for this type of product, so try them and see what you like.  Just be sure to read the label.  You wouldn't want to drink a glass of Mocha Mix, so if that's what you're after, try some of the many soy or rice based milk substitutes (or lactose reduced/free real milk).   They are a lot more available than they used to be, but health food stores a good source if your supermarket isn't.

Butter:  Butter is almost all fat so there's no room left for any lactose.  Butter is almost entirely free of lactose.

Margarine:  Many margarines contain whey or other dairy products.  It's very hard to find a soft margarine these days without whey in it (my local market, a large Safeway, has none in a large tub).  Stick margarine is a little easier to find without whey.  Luckily I've found a source for soft margarine without whey.  It's a house brand of a chain of food stores called Smart 'n Final.  They're all over California, but I'm not sure what other states they are in.  

Cheese:  It's hard to tell which cheeses have lactose and which have none or in small amounts.  One thing is certain, any "cheese foods" like Velveeta, American cheese slices etc. have lots of lactose in them.

Yogurt:  Some LI people can tolerate yogurt, some can't.  Debate rages as to why.  The best theory is that the organisms (lactobacillus) that make yogurt what it is play two roles.  First they ferment the lactose in the milk, turning it into lactic acid so there is less lactose in the final yogurt.  Second the organisms take the place of lactase in the intestines.  Be aware that commercial yogurt generally has its lactose content increased prior to fermentation so more is left in the final product (which reduces its sourness).  So while the first reason may make sense in the case of homemade yogurt, it probably doesn't apply to the majority of commercial yogurts.  As to the second reason, not all commercial yogurt contains active (live) cultures.  So make sure it contains active cultures ("made from" doesn't count - all yogurt is made from active cultures). 

Sour Cream:  Most have a significant amount of lactose.

Cream Cheese:  Has a lot of lactose in it.

Whipped Cream:  Definitely has lactose in it.  There are non-dairy alternatives, the most popular of which is the original Cool Whip.  But be careful.  They have new versions out now that do contain dairy products and lots of lactose.  So again, read the label.

Cream vs Creme vs Creamy

Usually, but not always, a product with the word "cream" in the title has to contain cream.  There are exceptions, but in general this is the case.  When they want a cream-like effect but don't want to use real cream, they'll substitute the word "creme" (or some other creative misspelling) or use the word "creamy".  Does this mean the product contains no milk?  Not likely.  Usually they'll use whey and other dairy products to simulate the cream.  But some will be dairy free, so check the labels.

Beer, Wine and Liquor

Lactose in beer?  You bet.  You want to avoid any stout called a cream or milk stout, or even sweet stout.  Lactose is added to these products because the yeast that ferments the sugars (malt sugars) in the beer-making process does not ferment lactose.  Therefore it survives unchanged into the finished beer making it sweet.  You'll very rarely see a product called a "cream ale" which is a light ale.  If it's dark, then it's probably a cream stout and you should avoid it.  If it's light in color, then it's a true cream ale and these do not contain lactose.

I've never seen any lactose in wine, but most  "wine coolers" are in reality made from grain (like beer) and might contain anything, so read the label.  If you look close you'll see that they are "malt beverages".

I don't know of any hard liquors that contain lactose, but a lot of liqueurs do.  Bailey's Irish Cream (and it's copies) does.  Cream or milk should be listed on the ingredients.  Note that Harvey's Bristol Cream and Harvey's Bristol Milk are sherries and conatin no milk.  Likewise a "cream sherry" doesn't contain any milk.  Neither do any of the "creme de ___" liqueurs creme de menthe or creme de cocoa. 

Frozen Dinners/Entrées

It's extremely difficult to find these types of items that are dairy-free.  Somewhere in that huge list of ingredients there is likely to non-fat dried milk or whey lurking.  And don't make any assumptions based on the type of food.  While it's true, for example, that in a Chinese or Japanese restaurant you are unlikely to find lactose in a dish, when it makes the transition to a "frozen prepared food" milk products are likely to creep in.  See the section above on labels and have a look at the Teriyaki Rice Bowl for example.

The Delimex brand (now owned by Heinz) makes quite a few frozen items that are lactose-free.  And they are not all Mexican dishes either.  Their Teriyaki Rice Bowl is actually quite good and contains no lactose.  They also have Taquitos and Burritos that are milk-free.

Candy and Sweets

If you want chocolate in an easily obtainable candy bar, your choices are pretty limited.  Obviously milk chocolate is right out.  Fortunately most candy-makers put the word milk in big letters on the package (I've always been convinced that this was so parents wouldn't feel so bad about giving their kids candy to eat).  Dark chocolate (and semi-sweet) are what we're after.  95% of all dark chocolate is milk-free, but not always so you're still going to have to read the label.  

In a straight chocolate bar, Hershey's Special Dark is reasonably easy to find. (Update 2007 - Special Dark now contains both milk and lactose!  So scratch that one.  See why you have to keep reading the labels?)  Dove Dark Chocolate (made by Mars) contains milk, so you can't substitute that.  Look is dark chocolate covered nougat (nougat contains no milk) and is one of my personal favorites.  It's made by Annabelle.  There are lots of other dark chocolate bars out there, Trader Joes usually has a good selection without milk.  They also have a few other dark chocolate covered confections such as orange and raspberry gels and dark chocolate covered raisins.

With the surge of interest in "artisan" chocolates, there are lot more options out there to find really good chocolate made without any milk products.  They come in a variety of cacao percentages (up to 100%!).  Some of my favorites are Plantations (I've learned to eat their 100% bars), Dolfin and Dagoba.

See's Candies has a few items that don't contain milk.  You used to be able to get dark chocolate peanut clusters in the stores, but now they seem only to be available as part of their Nuts and Chews box.  They do still stock dark chocolate covered walnut and almond clusters.  A recent favorite of mine has been the discovery of their Dark Chocolate Nougat.   If you have doubts, See's stores carry an ingredient list for all their products.

If you don't need a chocolate fix, your choices widen.  Jelly beans and related products (like gum drops, Skittles, Mike 'n Ike etc.) are generally pretty safe.   Annabelle's Big Hunk and Abba-zaba bars are milk-free.  Licorice (the real black stuff) and it's colored counterparts (like Red Vines, Twizzlers etc.) are also generally milk-free.  Some peanut bars (like Planter's) are milk-free, but not all.  

Common Candy Ingredients:

Caramel is made with either cream or milk, so you'll want to avoid any product that contains it.  

Chocolate as cocoa has no milk, but most chocolate sold these days is milk chocolate.  Dark, semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate usually contains no milk, but sometimes it does, so ask or read the label.  White chocolate is not really chocolate at all, and as you might surmise, contains milk.

Nougat is made from sugar does not contain milk.

Cocoa or cocoa powder usually does not contain milk, but that's not the same as "hot cocoa mix" which usually does.

Cocoa butter is not a milk product.

Chocolate liqueur (or liquor) does not contain milk (or alcohol).

Breakfast Cereals

Essentially the more complex the cereal, the more likely it is that milk is one of the many ingredients.  Conversely, the simpler the cereal, the less likely it is to contain milk.  For example, almost all of the fancy granola like cereals have milk in them.  Simple things like corn flakes generally don't.  

I'm currently trying to lose some weight and I am eating a Kashi product called Go Lean for breakfast.  They have two versions: "regular" and "crunch".  The regular contains milk, the crunch does not.  The reason I bring this up is because it's very easy to get fooled, even for a veteran label-reader like myself.  I had "checked out" the cereal a few days earlier, not even realizing there were two versions.  Randomly I must have picked up the crunch version.  When I returned to the store a few days later to buy it, I picked up the regular version.  Luckily I read the label again before buying it.


Today for lunch my wife made chicken soft tacos.  Lunch came in the middle of writing the above section.  As I was eating the taco, the site was on my mind and I remembered reading on another site that tortillas contained milk.  That has not been my experience and I was wondering why the other site said what it did.  After lunch I looked at the ingredients list for the tortillas my wife had bought and there was whey in them!  It never occurred to her to check the ingredients of tortillas!  So you can see that even in a household where we have been sensitized to these issues for years, you can still slip up.  You always have to read the labels.  Always.

Bread and Bakery Products

Most bread, for some unknown reason, is made with milk.   Recently I was sent to the store to buy a loaf of whole grain bread.  Near me is a rather large, up-scale Safeway.  They did not have a single loaf of whole-grain bread that was milk-free. 

White bread can often be found that contains no milk.  Here in Northern California you can get Wonder and Iron Kids bread without milk.  (I learned long ago that bread brands were mostly regional, so you'll have to find the equivalent where you live.) 

French bread, especially sourdough, is almost always milk-free. 

Rye bread is almost always milk-free as well.

Hot dog and hamburger buns are a different story.  Sometimes you can find them without milk.  (Wonder and Rainbow brands don't have any milk as of this writing.)  The Mrs. Wright's brand, which is a Safeway house brand, used to be milk-free, but they changed recipes about a year ago and now all their products, including the white bread, contains milk. (In fact, my local Safeway now does not carry a single type of hot dog or hamburger bun that is milk-free.)  So you can see, as I keep saying, you always have to keep reading labels, even on products you are familiar with. 

I have never found a commercial, packaged donut that is milk-free.  I therefore suspect that all donuts, even from the donut shop, contain milk.  I once had someone drag me all over town to get me to try a Krispy Kreme donut (which were new out here).  Naturally they contained milk.

This also applies to most other types of commercially prepared bakery "sweets", with the exception of some cookies and believe it or not, some brownies.  Pillsbury bake-them-yourself chocolate chip cookies and brownies have no milk in them. 

Most commercial cake mixes contain milk.  The notable exception is Duncan Hines, which usually doesn't.  Ready-to-spread frosting is another matter.  An awful lot contain milk, but some are OK.  A lot are kosher, and will contain the Kosher Dairy designation even though they have no milk products.  As was explained way up the page, this is because the equipment at some point is used to make a milk-containing frosting.  So guess what?  You have to read the label.

Fruit pies can sometimes be found made without milk.  (The filling almost always is milk-free but the crust can have milk.)  About half the pecan pies I've encountered are also milk-free.  Cream pies are obviously out.  Frozen pie crust usually has milk in it, but Nancy's does not.  Pumpkin and other custard pies will always be made with milk.  My ex-wife Lynnette's great Non-Dairy Pumpkin Pie Recipe can be found here.  We have served it at many a Thanksgiving dinner and no one could tell it was made without milk.