November 21, 2023

13 Foods That You Didn’t Know Contain Dairy

Be sure to check the labels of common foods like canned tuna, bread, hot dogs and chocolate

Muffins and sweetbreads with frosting on trays at bakery.

You’d expect milk and ice cream to contain lactose — a type of sugar found in milk and milk products. But salad dressing and lunch meat? Sneaky!

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And if you have a lactose intolerance or follow a dairy-free or vegan diet, you may need to avoid dairy products. But the list of foods that are dairy may be longer than you think.

Registered dietitian Anna Taylor, RD, LD, points out certain foods with dairy and what words to look for on your food labels if you’re living dairy-free.

What’s considered dairy?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines dairy as milk, yogurt, cheese, lactose-free milk and fortified soy milk and yogurt.

But “nondairy” on a label doesn’t mean the product doesn’t contain milk derivatives. For example, a nondairy food may contain casein, one of the major milk allergens.

Foods that have dairy

Looking for a list of dairy products to avoid? Here are some common foods that you may not think contain dairy but do.

Margarine and butter

Is butter a dairy product? Yes, says Taylor. Butter is typically made by churning cream that comes from a cow’s milk. And even margarine, which you may think is a dairy-free alternative, may contain dairy ingredients like whey or lactose.

“There are plenty of vegan margarines on the market now,” she says. “An easy way to double-check is a quick glance at the package. If a product contains milk, it must disclose this by saying ‘contains milk’ or similar wording at the end of the ingredients list.”

Chocolate

Does chocolate have dairy? Say it ain’t so! Unfortunately, lots of chocolate contains milk — milk chocolate, white chocolate and even some dark chocolate.

“There are plenty of dark chocolates that don’t contain milk as an ingredient, but they may still be cross-contaminated with milk if they are made on the same equipment as other types of chocolate,” clarifies Taylor.

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Bread

Think twice before you reach for that dinner roll. You need to check the label to see if the bread you’re about to eat contains lactose (which is used sometimes as a sweetener) or whey (which is used in some cases as a preservative). You also need to watch out for crackers, which may also contain lactose and whey. Check the label for any dairy ingredients or milk derivatives (more on those in a moment).

Baked goods

Chocolate chip cookies, vanilla cake, bread pudding — the list can go on and on with baked goods that contain some form of dairy. Just think about all that butter in your go-to recipe for sugar cookies. And even if a recipe doesn’t call for butter, you need to watch out for those that use yogurt or milk.

“Of course, not all baked goods contain dairy. Grocery stores often carry specialty products that are dairy-free or even vegan, and the internet is swarming with dairy-free recipe alternatives for a variety of baked goods,” notes Taylor. “And if it’s a sweet tooth you’re coddling, there are also plenty of tasty plant-based ice creams on the market today that use an alternative like coconut milk or soy milk — so these would be dairy-free as well.”

Frosting

The icing on the cake? It’s probably made with milk or even cream.

“Luckily, your holiday cookies can be decorated with a simple mixture of water and powdered sugar (food coloring and your favorite extract flavoring optional!),” suggests Taylor. “Let’s just not fool ourselves into thinking it’s any healthier just because it’s dairy-free!”

Hot dogs

While you may not think of the ballpark staple containing any dairy, you need to be careful. Even sausages and deli meat may contain forms of dairy.

Instant mashed potatoes

You know that homemade mashed potatoes are often made with milk and butter. But what about instant mashed potatoes? Sorry to burst your bubble, but the mixture often contains powdered milk or butter to add flavor.

Salad dressings

Skip pre-made options, which tend to use lactose for a creamy consistency and to add flavor. Instead, opt to make your own salad dressing at home.

“Try mixing 1 part vinegar (such as apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar) or lemon juice to 3 parts olive oil,” shares Taylor. “Feel free to add some seasonings (like pepper or Italian seasoning) and a dollop of your favorite grainy mustard to flavor. It’s easy, fast and delicious — without all the unnecessary additives.”

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Flavored potato chips

It can be easy to chomp your way through a whole bag of barbecue or salt-and-vinegar potato chips, but any kind of chip that comes in a flavor like dill pickle or sour cream-and-onion often contain dairy in their seasoning.

Canned tuna

Think you’re just getting tuna packed in water or oil? Think again, there may be hidden dairy ingredients. Many varieties turn to casein as a filler.

Canned or boxed soup and broth

Sure, it makes sense that cream of chicken and cream of broccoli soups to have dairy (typically milk solids). But don’t forget to check other options, even chicken, vegetable and beef broth.

Gum

You just had a very garlicky lunch and need to freshen up your breath before your afternoon meeting. But did you know that some brands of gum use dairy in the form of casein? Make sure you read the label before you chew.

Medicines and vitamins

Taylor says to remember to check your medications, too. About 20% of prescription medications and 6% of over-the-counter drugs contain lactose. Talk to your doctor about your options.

“Or chat with your pharmacist about it,” she recommends. “They often have access to ingredient information for many medications and supplements.”

Other ingredients to watch out for

In addition to milk listed on a product’s label, you may be wondering: What is a milk derivative and what has dairy in it? If you’re avoiding dairy for any reason, it’s important to check your food labels for the following ingredients, many which are considered a milk derivative:

  • Butter.
  • Casein.
  • Caseinates.
  • Curds.
  • Dry milk solids.
  • Lactalbumin.
  • Lactalbumin phosphate.
  • Lactoglobulin.
  • Lactose.
  • Milk.
  • Milk by-products.
  • Nonfat dry milk.
  • Whey.

“Since milk is one of the top allergens in the U.S., it has to be listed directly under the ingredients list if a product contains any dairy,” emphasizes Taylor. “So, don’t forget to check that label!”

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