Milk and dairy products have been part of people’s diets for centuries. They provide important nutrients to support wellbeing and contribute to a healthy balanced diet. That said, despite dairy’s positive nutrient contribution and the fact that dairy foods are safe and affordable, some people choose to or need to adopt a dairy-free diet.
What are dairy foods?
Dairy foods include milk (obtained from different animals such as a cow, goat and buffalo) as well as the products made from it such as cheese, yoghurt, cream and butter. Although all these products can have different nutrition profiles, milk, cheese and yoghurt are generally good sources of protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine, all of which are essential for staying healthy.
Despite providing essential nutrients, dairy-free diets are necessary for those who have a milk allergy or a dairy intolerance. There are also others who have chosen to give up dairy due to environmental and ethical reasons.
What is a dairy-free diet?
A dairy-free diet is one in which milk and all its derivatives (such as cheese, yoghurt, cream, ice cream and butter) are avoided. This also involves avoiding foods that contain ingredients made from milk, for example milk powder, casein and whey powder.
Why do people go dairy free?
There are different reasons why people follow a dairy-free diet. Below are some of the main ones.
1. Environmental or animal welfare concerns
Some people choose not to eat dairy due to environmental or animal welfare reasons. Usually, people who give up dairy due to these reasons also follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, so it is important to ensure similar nutrients found in dairy are consumed from other foods to avoid nutrient deficiencies.
Those with a milk allergy must be careful not to consume dairy or products with dairy ingredients. A dairy allergy causes the body to mistakenly react to the proteins in milk, developing a negative immune reaction such as an itchy rash, swelling, vomiting, and/or breathing difficulties, which although rare, can be life-threatening.
In contrast, people who suffer from lactose intolerance are unable to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in milk. This can cause bloating, stomach pain and discomfort, vomiting and diarrhoea. Although intolerance symptoms can be serious, they are usually not life-threatening, and the level of intolerance can vary from person to person. For some people, eating lactose-free products allows them to still enjoy dairy without any digestive issues.
If you have any concerns about a dairy allergy or intolerance, speak to a registered healthcare professional to be medically tested.
What are some dairy nutrients?
Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt contain protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine, which are essential for health.
Avoiding or cutting out dairy from the diet can result in a lower intake of certain nutrients, especially calcium and iodine, which are largely found in dairy. Likewise, when following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, this can result in a lower intake of vitamin B12.
What foods should I eat to replace the key dairy nutrients?
- Calcium – plant-based dairy alternative drinks and yoghurts such as soya and oat which have been fortified with calcium, as well as almonds, dried apricots, tahini and tofu. If choosing a dairy alternative, it’s always recommended to choose products fortified with calcium. If you eat fish, canned fish that contains edible soft bones such as sardines, pilchards and salmon, can also provide calcium.
- Protein – depending on the diet you follow, you can still get sufficient protein from eggs, fish, meat and poultry as well as from plant-based sources such as beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, tofu and meat alternative products like those from our Green Cuisine range.
- Iodine – seaweed, seafood and white fish are very good sources of iodine. Some plant-based dairy alternative drinks and yoghurts are also fortified with iodine, although it’s not common, so make sure to check the label.
- Vitamin B12 - as with protein, if you consume eggs, fish, meat and poultry you can obtain vitamin B12 from these. Otherwise, if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you will need look for foods fortified with vitamin B12 or opt to take supplements - but if choosing the latter, always check with a health professional first.
Be aware that the levels of these nutrients in non-dairy foods differ from the amounts found in dairy products, so consulting with a health professional before making any changes to your diet is recommended.
Should I follow a dairy-free diet if am not allergic or intolerant to dairy?
For those who do not suffer from any dairy allergy or intolerance, and who have not been advised by a medical professional to cut out dairy, there is no need nutritionally to remove it from your diet as it provides many essential nutrients such as protein, calcium, iodine and vitamin B12.
It is important, however, to read the nutritional labels and follow portion size guidelines for dairy foods as some products, such as hard cheese, can be high in saturated fat and salt. To find out more about foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar, visit our guide to HFSS.
For those who need or choose to have a dairy-free diet, it is important to consume a variety of foods that provide similar nutrients to those found in dairy. This would allow the body to obtain key nutrients from other food sources and avoid deficiencies.
When it comes to dairy alternatives, it is important to choose those that are fortified with relevant vitamins and minerals (calcium, vitamin B12, iodine) and for plant-based milk alternatives to also be unsweetened to avoid excess sugar consumption. We’d recommend always checking food labels.
For more information around healthy eating habits, visit our nutrition hub – packed full of interesting articles about nutrients and minerals. Plus, take a look at our extensive product range for all your frozen food needs, whether it’s fish, chicken or mouth-watering meat-free options you’re looking for.