Dairy Intolerance (including Lactose Intolerance)

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There are many reasons why milk might need to be avoided.  It may be because the protein component of milk is not tolerated or because the milk sugar (called lactose) is not tolerated.  If you are unsure which component of milk you do not tolerate then it is preferable to avoid both and to follow a milk free diet.  This includes cows’ milk and all other animal milks such as sheep, goat and buffalo etc.

It is not just milk that should be avoided but also dairy products and foods made with milk derived ingredients. 

It used to be very difficult to identify all milk derived ingredients, but with improvements in food labelling due to changes in European Food Labelling law, foods which are manufactured will now clearly list if milk or a milk derived ingredient is contained in manufactured pre-packaged foods or drinks.  At the moment this is not the case for foods that are sold loose such as delicatessen, butchers products or bakery items, but this will change in 2014 when new regulations become mandatory.

If you are shopping outside the EU you will need to know all the names of milk derived ingredients to be able to check food labels:

  • Milk powder/skimmed milk powder
  • Milk drinks /malted milk drinks
  • All types of cheese/cheese powder
  • Butter
  • Margarine/low fat spread unless it specifically states it is dairy free)
  • Yoghurt/quark/fromage frais
  • Cream/sour cream
  • Casein/caseinates/sodium caseinates/hydrolysed casein
  • Milk solids
  • Non-fat milk
  • Whey
  • Whey syrup sweetener
  • Milk sugar solids
  • Lactose

ANY food can contain milk so it is essential that the full ingredients’ listing is read for all manufactured products.  It is not sufficient to read just the allergy advice box.

Non-packaged items should be avoided as their ingredients are unknown and they may contain milk or milk derived ingredients.

When following a milk free diet for the first time it is easy to make mistakes and try and take shortcuts but with so many foods containing milk derived ingredients there is no substitute for carefully reading food labels every time a new food is used. 

Often people new to this diet are surprised to find out that many of the following foods CAN contain milk derived ingredients.  However, some brands may not, so check every food label or you may be restricting your diet unnecessarily.

The following are examples of processed foods, which may contain milk:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Soups
  • Baby foods
  • Processed meats, e.g. sausages, pate, meat pies
  • Pizzas
  • Sauces and gravies
  • Baked goods, e.g. bread, rolls, buns, brioche
  • Pancakes, batters
  • Ready meals
  • Puddings and custards
  • Cakes, biscuits, crackers
  • Chocolate and confectionery
  • Crisps, flavoured nuts and tortillas
  • Any manufactured food, bakery, butcher’s products or deli items

Note:  Before any changes are made to yours or your child's diet, you should seek advice from a dietitian.

It is worth noting that just because one brand of food contains milk, a similar food of a different brand may not so keep checking those labels.  Also, the cheaper value, or essential brands can often be milk free whereas the luxury versions are more likely to contain butter and cream.

Is there a difference between soy formula milk and soya milk?     

Yes, the soya milks available in shops and supermarkets are unsuitable for babies under 12 months, as they lack sufficient nutrients for babies - especially protein, fat and iron.  Infants under 12 months require either breast milk or formula milk.  Formula milks are designed specifically to meet the nutritional requirements of growing infants and are formulated to be as close to breast milk as possible.

Can soy formula milks be used during weaning, either as a drink or in recipes?

Yes, soy formula milks can be used during weaning both as a drink and in recipes to replace cows’ milk,  but not in babies under six months of age unless there is a specific medical indication.  It is thought that some substances in this milk called phytoestrogens, which are similar to the female hormone oestrogen, may affect the development of children.  For the infant who struggles to take the 500-600mls daily intake of milk/replacement milk, the formula can be used to make custard, rice pudding, added to soups, white sauces, purees etc

I have heard that cows’ milk is an important source of calcium.  If my baby must avoid cows’ milk, will he/she get enough calcium?

Soy formula milks are fortified with calcium, and one pint (500-600mls) will provide about 60% of the daily requirement of calcium for babies under one year.  The balance of the calcium should also be obtained from milk free foods at weaning, such as cereals, bread, sardines, broccoli, soya yogurt, dairy free rice pudding and custard etc.  Occasionally, calcium supplements may be necessary if a baby is not taking a sufficient amount of soy formula milk and calcium rich solids .  If you are concerned about your baby's calcium intake, ask your dietitian or doctor for advice.

Are soy formula milks suitable for older children and adults?

Yes, although they are low in calcium for infants over 12 months so it may be preferable to move onto an off-the-shelf soya milk, which is, calcium enriched to 120mg calcium per 100mls.  It depends on the overall dietary intake and what is acceptable to the infant.

Even if I check the labels thoroughly, how can I be sure that specific manufactured foods are suitable for someone who cannot tolerate cows’ milk

Food allergen labelling laws are strictly followed by manufacturer.  As long as you are reading food labels every time you shop to make sure ingredients have not changed,  you should be safe.  Avoid any foods that do not have labels.

We prefer a vegan diet.  Can we give our baby a soy formula instead of a formula based on cows’ milk?

Yes, it is free from animal products, so, parents who prefer to give their babies a vegan diet can use it.

A small number of children will react to soya formula and therefore will need to be prescribed a formula which is free from both cows’ milk protein and soya protein.  Your GP or dietitian will advise on suitable alternatives.

If you or your child are milk allergic then specialist advice is required because although the majority of children do "outgrow" their allergy, not all will.  For those that do out grow it, they can reintroduce cows’ milk into their diet but this is not recommended without advice from a specialist.  If milk is reintroduced and the milk allergy or intolerance has not been outgrown this could cause potentially life threatening symptoms in some individuals.


Lactose Intolerance

This is a relatively common complaint, perhaps one in five people will suffer symptoms suggestive of lactose intolerance and this is a lot more common in certain ethnic groups.  This is not an allergic condition, but an inability to digest lactose (milk sugar) because of low levels or an absence of lactase the enzyme responsible for digesting lactose.  It can affect both children and adults, and the common symptoms are diarrhoea, bloating and discomfort.  Lactose intolerance may occur temporarily following a bout of gastroenteritis and in these cases will usually resolve over time.  Other cases will be lifelong such as those born with a primary lactose intolerance or those who grow into it.

Lactose is present in all mammal milks such as cows’ milk, goats’ milk, buffalo milk and sheeps’ milk in similar quantities.

For some people there is a dose related response, someone may be able to tolerate the small amount of milk in tea, but a glass of milk would cause symptoms. 

There are tests available for the diagnosis of lactose intolerance, however the most reliable diagnosis is to exclude lactose to see if the symptoms get better and then reintroduce it to see if the symptoms return.  A dietitian should help with this to ensure it is done correctly and monitored and supervised.  Your GP will be able to refer you to a state registered dietitian on the NHS.

If, after having excluded dairy products from your diet for a period of time (e.g. a month) without improvement in your symptoms, then it is likely there is some other cause or possibly an additional cause of your symptoms.  If dairy is not the trigger it is advisable to reintroduce dairy products back into the diet.

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It is recommended that older people have a calcium intake of 1500 mg per day.  The daily recommended calcium intake according to age, as recommended by the National Osteoporosis Society, is as follows:

Age Daily Calcium Intake
up to 12 months 525mg
1-3 years 350mg
4-6 years 450mg
6-10 years 700mg
11-18 years 1000mg
Males 1000mg
Females 800mg
Breastfeeding mothers 1250mg

Milk and dairy foods are excellent sources of calcium but many dairy free foods are also high in calcium – often because it has been added during production.


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Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium

The following are foods that have a high calcium content

Food Calcium content per 100g/100ml
Calcium enriched soya milk, oat milk, hemp milk, coconut milk, almond milk, hazelnut milk 120mg
Chick peas (raw) 160 mg
Soya beans (raw) 240 mg
Tofu 510 mg
Red kidney beans 100 mg
Okra 160mg
Spring greens 75mg
Watercress 170mg
Parsley 200mg
Apricots 92mg
Currants 53mg
Figs (dried) 250mg
Almonds 240mg
Brazil Nuts 78mg
Hazel Nuts 140mg
Treacle (black) 500mg
Tahini 680mg
Sesame seeds 670mg
Orange juice with added calcium 100mg
Instant porridge 40g made with calcium enriched plant/nut milk 600mg
Calcium enriched bread 240mg per thick slice

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Last updated: October 2012