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How to Identify Dairy Products on Food Labels

To successfully avoid dairy products, you need to be well informed, which includes having a good understanding of what to look for and how to read food labels. Being dairy smart also means being savvy about changes that may occur from time to time in product formulas and getting the information you may need about these products from food companies.

If you’re sensitive to dairy ingredients for any reason, you want to stay vigilant and bring all your good detective skills to bear when you decide what to eat. Not only do you have to look for the obvious sources of dairy, but you also have to catch the presence of even minor sources. The first place you can determine whether a food is dairy-free is on the product’s ingredient label. Food labels are required to note all the ingredients included in a product during manufacturing.

In general, where food labels are concerned, short is good. That’s because foods with short ingredient lists tend to be foods that are less processed and closer to their natural states. In other words, they tend to have fewer additives and byproducts that may be derivatives of dairy. Usually, though not always, a short ingredient list also means that figuring out what’s inside the package is easier.

When you pick up a food product and read its label, pay attention to these issues, too:

  • Order of the ingredients: Foods are listed in order of their predominance in the product. The ingredients listed first are present in the largest proportions in that product. Foods listed near the end are present in smaller quantities.

    Knowing the order of the ingredients may help you decide whether you want to eat a particular food. You may not want to eat a food in which a dairy product is the first ingredient, but you may not mind it if that ingredient is at the tail end of the list. For example, if skim milk is listed first, you know that of the predominant ingredient in that product is milk. But if skim milk is listed last in a long line of ingredients, it’s likely present in a very small amount. Depending on your reasons for living dairy-free, it may be okay for you to eat the product.

  • Potential allergens: Since Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, ingredients for which the source is a major food allergen must be clearly identified on the food label.

Dairy ingredients must be identified in parentheses following the name of the ingredient or immediately following or alongside the ingredient in a special statement that includes the word “contains.” For example, whey may be listed on the label as “whey (milk),” and other packages might say, “Contains milk and soy.”

You also may see wording on labels that indicates the potential for unintentional cross-contamination of foods with allergens. For example, a product processed on equipment that at times is used to process foods containing a food allergen may include on the label wording such as “Made on equipment that is also used to produce dairy beverages.”

Be aware that foods labeled before January 1, 2006, weren’t required to comply with the 2004 law and aren’t required to have replacement labels. It’s possible that some old food may be lingering on shelves in your home or in stores. If those products contain milk or milk byproducts, it may not be readily apparent to you by a quick scan of the ingredient list. So, if you’re particularly sensitive or strict with your diet, take care to read food labels carefully in this type of situation.

If you can’t read the labels of a food product and can’t quite determine whether a dish has dairy in it, apply a healthy dose of caution to your food choices. This advice is especially wise if you’re eating away from home and don’t have a menu or product ingredient label to guide you. Wait staff at restaurants sometimes make mistakes or may not know that the creamy stuff inside the pasta is actually melted cheese. So let common sense be your guide.

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