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Does Vegan Mean Dairy Free?

If you are lactose intolerant, dietary labels can be confusing to navigate. You may see a lot of terms thrown around. If you read a label at the store, it might say things like “vegan,” “dairy-free,” or “lactose-free.”

While these labels can be beneficial for anyone with dietary restrictions, there can be gray areas around what they mean.

You may be wondering what is safe to eat or not.

We’re here to help you demystify these labels so that you aren’t playing Russian Roulette with your food!

We’ll be answering, “does vegan mean dairy-free?” and many other questions you may have!

Vegan 101

Vegan, that means you eat veggies, right?

 Yes, veganism does include veggies.

The true definition of vegan food is that it doesn’t contain any meat, dairy, eggs, or animal parts.

Vegan diets are becoming more and more popular as it becomes easier to find quality foods free of animal products.

Some people eat vegan food for dietary reasons, others for ethical reasons.

False Friends

While many vegan foods may be obvious, some seemingly vegan foods do include animal products.

Foods that you might not realize have animal products include:

Gelatin: This is a sneaky animal product made out of collagen found in Jello-O, fruit snacks, Pop-Tarts, and Starbursts.

Confectioner’s glaze: Confectioner’s glaze is a common ingredient found in candy that adds a shiny, smooth finish. This glaze typically has shellac, which contains “lac,” a secretion from the lac bug that creates a glaze finish. Foods that usually contain shellac are candied apples, jelly beans, and other hard candies.

Browned baked goods: If your pastries have a perfect golden-brown crust, it might not be vegan. Bakers often use an egg wash to achieve that golden color. 

Natural flavorings: Many snack items, such as potato chips, have “natural flavorings” from chicken or dairy.

What are some examples of vegan food?

After reading that, you may be wondering what vegans can even eat.

It turns out there are a lot of vegan foods.

Vegans can eat fruits and veggies, grains, beans, nuts, fungi, seeds, oils, herbs and spices, many condiments, and other plant-based products.

There are also many vegan substitutes for meat-based foods for those who aren’t quite ready to part with animal products.

You can find delicious “ground” beef alternatives such as Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods. If you love yogurt, there are plant-based options for that. Milk-lovers can find an extensive selection of plant-based milk products that are 100% vegan. There’s even vegan cheese that melts!

Just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it’s boring!

Many people have found alternative recipes for foods with animal products.

There are vegan mac and cheese, burritos, cakes, etc.

Does vegan mean dairy-free?

Lactose intolerant people may not be looking to follow a vegan diet. However, many people find that foods labeled vegan make excellent lactose-free swaps.

So dairy, which is any product made with mammal milk, is not vegan, right?

That is the case 99.9% of the time, but you may be shocked to hear that some dairy forms are considered vegan.

Wait, what?! How is that even possible?

Vegan registered products can still use facilities that produce dairy products. There is a level of cross-contamination that can happen.

People who are lactose intolerant don’t need to worry about this. Still, if you have a dairy allergy, this could be a problem.

There is another way that vegan certified food can contain dairy, this time, in a more pronounced way.

While it isn’t quite mainstream yet, a start-up in Silicon Valley found a way to lab-create milk proteins (whey and casein) without cows or mammals.

Proteins in these products do come from actual cows but do not harm the animals.

Due to this non-invasive process, it has a vegan classification. Still, it is not suitable for people who are avoiding dairy.

However, these are scarce examples, and almost all vegan food will also be dairy-free.

What vegan foods are the best replacements for dairy?

There are some instances where vegan foods may contain traces of dairy or contain dairy. However, the vast majority of vegan products are safe for lactose-intolerant people.

Many vegan products are a great replacement if the lactose in dairy upsets your stomach.

These include plant-based milk, yogurt, ice cream, whipping cream, cheese, pasta sauces, and creamers.

If you see these replacements, you’ll likely be in the clear unless it specifically says it contains dairy.

Dairy-free and lactose-free diets

Vegan food is generally a safe bet for lactose-intolerant people. However, some may wonder, is dairy-free the same as lactose-free?

Does all dairy have lactose?

You can find lactose in most dairy products. However, some types of dairy have insignificant amounts of the enzyme or have it taken out completely.

Although these foods have dairy, they are safe for lactose-intolerant people to consume.

Lactose-intolerant people can eat up to 12 grams of lactose at the same time without any issues.

Here are some dairy products that have naturally low/insignificant levels of lactose:

Hard, aged cheeses

The longer the cheese is aged, the safer it is for lactose-intolerant people. Numerous delicious cheeses are stomach-friendly. Most have under 5 grams of lactose. These include:

  • Parmesan
  • Muenster
  • Camembert
  • Brie
  • Cheddar
  • Gouda
  • Provolone
  • Blue
  • Swiss

Avoid cheeses that are softer and fresher. Those may create some instant regret.


If you love butter but are scared to eat it because you’re lactose-intolerant, fear not. Most lactose-sensitive people can eat butter without any problem. It contains very little lactose and is almost impossible to go over the limit (and if you do, you may have other health issues). One cup of butter only has 0.1 grams of lactose, so you’ll be more than okay.

Heavy Cream

This product also has very little lactose, ringing in only 0.5 grams for each half an ounce. If you are using this dairy product for milk or dessert, you should be fine.

Lactose free products

There are also many products out there labeled “lactose-free.”

Products with this designation mean that either the manufacturer removes the lactose or adds lactase to help breakdown the lactose. 

These products are real dairy products but are suitable for lactose-intolerant people.

Bottom Line

There are many confusing labels out there for lactose-intolerant people to navigate.

If you see something labeled vegan, it won’t include dairy or lactose in almost every instance. It is only in rare cases that it does.

However, dairy products are not as clear-cut. Some dairy is lactose-free and suitable to eat, while others are not. Despite this, there are many dairy and lactose-free products that lactose-intolerant people can enjoy with peace of mind. 

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