Living with Milk Allergies

It's a little more complicated than avoiding the dairy case
by Lisa Solonynko

Reading every label in detail becomes second nature with a milk allergy in the house.

In the two years since my son Ryan, now four, was diagnosed with a severe milk allergy, we've learned a lot. Maintaining a milk-free diet isn't easy, and the misperceptions of people around us haven't helped.

Now we're vigilant consumers of food, from grocery-store items to fast food. Even if you don't have a child with a milk allergy, understanding what it is and management strategies might be useful if your child has an allergic friend.

Don't say "Try a little Lactaid!"

Many people confuse a cow's milk allergy with lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest the "milk sugar" in milk. In these cases milk sugar enzymes (lactase) may be prescribed to aid in the digestive process.

A cow's milk allergy, on the other hand, happens when the actual proteins in the milk are absorbed as antigens which the body tries to fight. The result of this battle is severe hives; swelling eyes, mouth, or throat; severe vomiting and diarrhea; and incredible emotional and behavioral disturbances.

For allergy sufferers, avoiding milk protein is key to maintaining a healthy body. Unfortunately, this is a huge task since variations of milk products appear in baby formula (making nursing the safest choice by far), many foods, and even in some medicines.

Since my son was diagnosed very early, he had not had much ice cream, chocolates, and cake. This made establishing a milk-free diet a bit easier. It was the people around him that I had to educate, and at times convince about the facts of milk allergies. Many times I heard, "A little won't hurt him," or, "Don't worry, I checked the ingredients and it didn't say 'milk' anywhere." I have even heard, "Here give him this pill and then he can eat as much ice cream as he wants." I realize that keeping my son healthy is my primary duty, so I don't rely on anyone else to check items for us. At pre-school one day, the teacher cut apples into pieces and offered one to Ryan. He politely asked the teacher, "Does this have milk in it?" He would only eat if I confirmed that it was safe to eat. Although Ryan is very young, he does know how incredibly sick he becomes if he is exposed to milk. History is enough for him not to take any chances.

Common Grocery Items to Check and Double Check!

Margarine: Most people think that margarine does not contain "milk products." This is a huge myth. 99% of all margarines contain milk. I have found three that do not. I was thrilled to find out that "Fleichman's Unsalted Margarine" contains no milk products. In my area, it is a bit cheaper than the others. Check the label carefully to make sure you have the correct product. HINT: Look for the word "Parve," which means no dairy.

Breaded Chicken

Battered Fish




Granola Bars


White/Brown Bread


Crackers (animal crackers, digestive cookies too)


Chocolate: Candy bars, anything with chocolate in it (Cocoa does NOT contain milk, if you find a chocolate bar that contains cocoa, but does not contain "milk chocolate" it is safe)

Salad Dressings

Imitation Maple and other syrups
(there are some with no milk, look carefully--obviously, 100% pure maple syrup from the tree is okay)

Cold Cereals

Instant Cereals

Coffee Whitener

Spice mixes
(lots contain whey powder)

Soup (watch out for caramel)

Cake Mixes

Pancake Mixes

Because I can make items that taste good and look like what his friends are eating, gatherings are a pleasure, rather than a constant chorus of "No, that's got milk in it"--"Why don't you have this delicious fruit instead of some brownies?" By using copycat ingredients, we can bring treats to share. Birthday parties, school snacks, and outings are more fun when no one is worrying about a possible reaction to food.

In order to make foods that Ryan can enjoy, I had to eliminate unsafe foods. Determining what a milk-allergic person can safely eat gets complex when you notice that "milk products" are not necessarily called MILK PRODUCTS. I'm a grocery store detective now, scanning labels for hidden milk proteins. Don't automatically eliminate foods if you find milk products in one brand. Other brands of the same item may not contain them. Unfortunately, manufacturers will frequently change ingredients without notice to the consumer. Check labels on a regular basis. We make most of our meals and snacks from scratch so that we know EXACTLY what the ingredients are. It's easier, more healthful, and often less expensive than processed food items.

Soy, soy, soy, soy

Soy is a wonderful product for families like ours, but it's not a panacea. By nature soy is very high in protein (it is a bean, after all), but it is low in fat and calcium. Other sources have to provide these. If you find a soy beverage that you want to use for baking or drinking, be sure it is high enough in fat and calcium. Low fat soy doesn't work in baking. Many soy drinks are marketed as low-fat diet items and contain next to no fat or calcium. I have found that "So Good" soy beverage is high in fat, and contains just as much calcium as cow's milk.

We use the unflavored variety and add our own (homemade) chocolate syrup. I find that the chocolate flavored variety has too much sugar, and I'd rather regulate that for my son. I also use it in baking. You can find wonderful soy cheese products, including sliced cheese, "mozzarella" cheese, etc. Unfortunately, you must check the label very carefully. Often, manufacturers use casein, a milk product, in soy cheese.

Eating out

We enjoy dining out, but whether we're eating at a white-tablecloth restaurant or one that hands the food out a window, I have to screen what I feed Ryan. Even if a restaurant says they provide a milk-free dinner, ask how it's cooked. It's simple for servers to forget butter or margarine, but you need to know. Carrying a pre-printed card makes it easy to provide the clerk/waitress/cook all the terms for "milk products," as a restaurant employee will usually look for the word "milk" on a label. Many fast food outlets put milk products in items such as: Hamburger and hot dog Buns; the hamburgers themselves; hot dogs; french fries (many put whey powder on the fries); fried chicken; cookies; and pies.

Authentic Chinese restaurants are usually a good bet for safe eating, as milk use is uncommon. Some other ethnic restaurants may also use low or no milk products. As always, check and double check. I am happy to say that my son can eat at McDonald's. Their "Happy Meal" contains absolutely NO MILK PRODUCTS. [Note: Since this article was written in 1999, McDonalds has added milk ingredients to many, many, many of its products, including McNuggets. McDonalds has nutritional and ingredient information available at its stores; be sure to check before assuming something's all right.--Ed.]

I recently asked a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet for an ingredient list. It was wonderful to see how extensively they broke down each menu item. I discovered that although the majority of their chicken dishes are deep-fried with batter, they do not all have the same ingredients. My son could safely have the "Chicken Strips" as well as their french fries. But that was all.

Consider writing to thank restaurants and chains when they make it safe for those with milk allergies to eat there. And of course, it's easier to check out a restaurants without children in tow. Knowing ahead of time where and what to avoid saves disappointment.

More than just edibles

Food and drink pose the greatest risk to the milk-allergic, but for those allergic to milk, prescriptions and over the counter medications can be dangerous. Ask your pharmacist about ingredient lists and warn him/her about the presence of a milk allergy so that s/he can be aware of this BEFORE filling out a prescription or recommending an over the counter medication.

Vigilance is the price of safety for those with milk allergies. Through educating yourself and those around you, it's possible to have both a happy child and a varied diet.

Hidden Milk Products

Main Categories of Milk Products

Milk Ingredients: Butter, sour cream, half and half, cheese (all forms--even "soy" cheese), yogurt, cheese curds, egg nog, cottage cheese.

Modified Milk Ingredients: All forms of milk (i.e., buttermilk, condensed milk, evaporated milk, Acidophilus milk, malted milk)

Casein (specific milk protein most commonly used): Casein, Caseinate, Potassium Caseinate (if you see the word "casein" AVOID)

Lactose (ingredients that begin with "lact"): Lactose, lactate, lactalbumin, lactoglobulin, etc.

Whey (another specific protein that has many forms): ALL FORMS OF WHEY.

Ready Sponge (a preservative): Investigation has shown that this preservative contains milk proteins as well as lactose. Those with allergies and lactose intolerance should avoid any products with this ingredient.

Caramel: This surprises many people. Unfortunately it is next to impossible to determine whether a product that contains "caramel" uses brown sugar and water, or if they also add milk products. Due to this confusion "caramel" is a highly suspicious ingredient. Many brown breads use caramel to make the bread look "more brown". Some store-bought breads use molasses instead of caramel, and are a much safer choice.

© 1999-2005 Lisa Solonynko, used by permission.


Guest's picture

The other thing that needs to be checked is any pill that you take. Manufacturers coat the pills with milk products.

Terri Hirning's picture

I don't know how long ago this article was written but as of today, McDonald's does report milk ingredients in their hamburgers AND french fries. Burger King does not, that is about the one fast food restaurant we ever go to, and even then rarely. I encourage anyone who has a reaction to milk to check websites and ingredients frequently, like the author said, manufacturers change ingredients frequently without notifying people. Almond and rice milk also make wonderful substitutes over soy (which is a plant based hormone and can be linked to cancer and thyroid problems, especially in children).

Guest's picture

I've checked McDonald's recently under their allergen info - their hamburgers do not contain milk ingredients from what I saw. Their frnech fries info is correct - they released that under big news I believe a while ago.

Lynn's picture

This is one of the oldest articles on the site. Thanks for the reminder--ALWAYS check labels when you have allergies, and stay updated. Even if you think you know a product is safe, things change.

Also yay for no soy!

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

Guest's picture

My child is 10 and is extremely allergic to milk, cheese and beef. From our personal trials and errors one source of milk that can change at any minute with fast food restaurants is the buns. Occasionally a fast food restaurant will try to "improve" their buns by coating them with butter. Many restaurants will buy buns from the local grocery store if they run out, and those ingredients are not posted. Also, as the fast food restaurants are trying to up their market they are experimenting with ciabatta buns, and artisan breads. These changes can happen at any time, putting you, or your child at risk. Also, it is not so easy to see the difference between the ranch they are spreading on sandwiches and mayonaise. Finally, there is the fun of cross contamination with the grills having cheese products, gloved hands touching multiple foods, sauces and cheese dropping on other foods, and spreaders touching more than one ingredient. Unfortunately if you or your child has a strong allergy, fast food meals are quite the risk. Subway works okay if you only get the wheat bread and have them wash the knives, change gloves, and double the paper they are sliding the food on. Good Luck!

Guest's picture

Thanks a lot for this great information. My 2-1/2 month old daughter was recently diagnosed with an allergy to cow's milk protein & I am breastfeeding her, which means I have to avoid all milk products as well... I had no idea that french fries could have milk! Avoiding milk has been an eye-opener to what milk-allergic people have to go through, and I'm only at the beginning of this with her. I was very surprised to discover that a "soy yogurt" that we purchased contained milk (the company uses milk for the cultures, but it is marketed as a soy product!). I am working with my husband to start checking all labels before he buys anything, too. Thank you also for the tip on soy cheeses, I will have to check these out!

Shenan's picture

I too am breastfeeding and it has been so hard this week to start kicking milk. Thanks to all that have given advice, and this article was very helpful

Guest's picture

Thank you Lynn and everyone that has commented here. I feel better armed with this knowledge. I have a daughter and she is 16 months old. She has a milk allergy. My wife found this site and I am happy for that :). Our doctor advised us that such allergies can go away after a couple of years. I have heard of children much older still having this allergy and it worries me.

Guest's picture

Many years ago I started to get sick on Kentucky Fried Chicken. They use whey to get the batter to stick to the chicken. If you get the baked chicken it seems to be better, so avoid the breaded coating.

Stephanie Wagner's picture

When reading a recipe that contains milk (for example muffins), what can I substitute it with? What can I substitute butter for in recipes?

Anhata's picture

My kids are allergic to dairy, gluten, peanuts, and a host of other foods, so I've become adept at substituting in recipes.

Milk substitutes:

Rice Milk
Coconut Milk
Almond Milk

All three of the above you can make yourself in about twenty minutes. Seriously. We make our own rice milk and coconut milk in our blender. Coconut and Almond milk taste better to me than rice milk, but that's just me.

Butter substitutes:

Coconut Oil or
Dairy-Free Margarine* or
Dairy-Free Shortening* (if baking)
Olive Oil (if sauteeing/frying)
Bacon grease (if sauteing, making sauces)
*in health food store, made of canola oil

I will often do half and half with two different oils to substitute for butter, like 1/2 olive oil and 1/2 coconut oil to sautee veggies or pop popcorn. Gives a better flavor/mouth feel. Lynn will tell you the best thing to pop popcorn in is lard. I've used bacon grease for that and it's pretty good. Depends on your attitude towards animal fats (mine is lenient).

Coconut milk and oil are by far my most favorite substitutes, they're easy for me to find at the store or make.

sha_saum's picture

My 10 month old daughter has Class V milk allergy and we're trying to educate ourselves with the various products available at stores that contain milk. I am really concerned for my daughter as she grows, like, how would she cope at school. She suffers from hives the moment milk touches her skin. Does anyone know if Class V allergy goes away with time?

Anhata's picture

My DD8 and DS6 have milk allergies and the school cafeteria has been wonderful working with us on it. With a letter from a doctor stating the kids have allergies, the school will give them juice at lunch and a tray for the salad bar where they load up with fruits and veggies. I send them to school with one protein entree in a lunch bag and the juice and salad bar round out the rest. I send beans and rice, leftovers, beef taquitos, sometimes rice crackers and hummus which the kids love.

Call your school district's nutrition director and find out what the options are for kids with allergies. They are getting more and more students with these allergies every year and are starting to accommodate.

Kim Flouhouse's picture

School lunches have been a good experience for my son, 6, who has a milk protein allergy that aggrevates his ulcerative collitis. HOWEVER, we have a VERY CONCERNED cafeteria manager. I work in the cafteria system for the same school district and some are not so concerned and don't seem as eager to educate themselves. My warning is to just as vigilant with anything they give your child as you would be anywhere else. Get the doctor note, talk to the head of nutrition, the kitchen manager and go in yourself and check the products. If they aren't fully cooperative don't trust them. If they make assumptions don't trust it. Our kitchen manager will not give my son anything unless she herself has checked it. I educated her at the beginning of the year and she has recently educated me about brown sugar. We have dealt with this for 4 years and I was unaware that when brown sugar is listed you need to be careful because some of the flavorings contain milk proteins. Lastly, educate your child!!!! My son like one of the other posters is a child who will ask if it contains cow's milk and at school he won't take something unless the kitchen manager says it's ok. He even tells waitresses that he has a milk allergy. Now that he is getting older we are adding the work protein, it catches the attention more.
Best of luck - read, read, read.

judylauj's picture

:( i have a very bad allergy right now. my tonsils are so big for the last 4 months i finally got it check out. doctor took some blood to test if im allergic to anything. 2 weeks later i went in and she gave me 2 papers a list of all the stuffs im allergic too. milk, egg white and wheat are some. she told me to avoid those things but its so hard for me everything i eat contains them. im dont no what to eat anymore. i have been avoiding it but sometimes i just cant help myself i just gotta have like a chocolate bar. how long will i have this for? and will i be able to eat any thing that contains these stuff in the future perhaps when it gets better? i just dont understand this...i been eatting them since i was a kid. how can this be? help

gedbaw's picture

Try these great candy bars from enjoy life foods. They have candy bars that are free of dairy, soy, eggs, nuts, gluten free etc. (excluding the 8 most common allergies) and keeping the facilities clean of these. This company makes candy bars, chocolate chips, granola bars, cereal, etc. They have a website too, but I can buy them at my grocery store in the candy aisle (in the "expensive chocolate and organic part of the aisle). They taste good too.
Good Luck!

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