The deal with dairy

Dairy is a nasty five letter word for many people who suffer from a dairy allergy or intolerance. And it’s a damn shame because there are so many yummy ice creams out there that those of us with dairy issues will never be able to safely sample.

Problems with dairy or lactose are not uncommon, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and I’ve even heard people asking if chicken is dairy.

This will be a somewhat simplified explanation, however if you want to read up more about dairy or lactose intolerance, or the relationship between lactase and lactose, check out the resource links at the bottom of this post.

Dairy and lactose

A dairy product is anything made from the milk of a mammal.

People with a dairy allergy or intolerance don’t necessarily react to every dairy product. Some people only have problems with dairy produced from cows, while other people have problems with a range of dairy products.

Lactose is a sugar found in dairy products. People who have a lactose intolerance have a shortage of lactase in their system, meaning they can’t metabolise lactose properly. The amount of lactose in dairy products varies between species e.g. cows milk contains more lactose than goats milk, and the amount of lactose also differs between different foods e.g. ice cream generally contains more lactose than cheese.

Dairy and lactose are not the same thing – a person with lactose intolerance could be perfectly healthy drinking lactose-free milk, while someone with a dairy intolerance or allergy would still react if the lactose-free milk contained dairy proteins.

The level of tolerance to dairy or lactose also varies from person to person. Some people can handle zero dairy or lactose (even contamination), while others can handle a reasonable amount of dairy with minimal reaction.


The symptoms of dairy intolerance and lactose intolerance include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach bloating
  • Vomiting

The symptoms of a dairy or milk allergy include:

  • Hives
  • Wheezing
  • Anaphylaxis 


There are a number of ways dairy and lactose intolerance can be diagnosed. Often diagnosis is made through elimination of dairy/lactose from the diet followed by careful monitored food challenges where dairy/lactose is reintroduced to check symptoms. This mode of diagnosis should not be attempted without the assistance of a medical professional. Other diagnostic methods include: hydrogen breath testing, lactose or milk tolerance testing, stool acidity testing, or small bowel biopsy.

Diagnosis of a dairy or milk allergy is usually made through an IgE test (a test that measures the amount of immunoglobulin E antibodies in the blood when exposed to dairy/lactose) or skin testing (where the skin is pricked and exposed to dairy/lactose – a hive/raised welt would show a positive test for allergy).

Dairy and other health issues

Intolerance and allergy aside, dairy can also be a problem for other folk who don’t suffer from typical gut-related symptoms. Dairy can be a trigger for both eczema and asthma (although there is some debate about asthma), and is often cited as something to be avoided for people with auto-immune issues.

Dairy and lactose intolerance are also more likely to be a problem for people with existing gut issues e.g. Coeliac or Crohns Disease.

Alternatives to dairy

Lucky for dairy-affected folk there are a large number of dairy alternatives. Some common alternatives include: soy, rice milk, oat milk and coconut milk. Lactose intolerant folk can usually handle all of the dairy-free alternatives previously mentioned as well as lactose-free milks (there are a few on the market in New Zealand). If you’re wanting to bake without dairy, this link shows some great Dairy-free substitutions.

Take care out there guys!



Allergy New Zealand: Cow’s milk allergy

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Issues: Lactose Intolerance

Mayo Clinic: Diseases and Conditions, Lactose Intolerance

Annual review of Genetics: Genetics of lactase persistence and lactose intolerance

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