What is a dairy allergy?

A dairy allergy is a reaction to certain components of cow’s milk. There are three components of cow’s milk that can cause allergic reactions: casein protein and whey protein.


Casein is the curd that forms when milk sours, and whey is the watery part that is left when the curd is taken out. Lactose is a sugar found in milk. Children can be allergic to either whey or casein, or both. Children (and adults) are more likely to be lactose intolerant rather than have a full-blown allergy to lactose.

Dairy allergies have a wide variety of symptoms that may include hives, eczema, diarrhoea, skin rashes and wheezing. In a very few cases, milk allergy can cause anaphylaxis (severe breathing difficulties that can be life-threatening).

Foods to avoid

If your child is allergic to the proteins in cow’s milk, you need to be aware than goat’s milk and sheep’s milk are not suitable alternatives. This is because her body may recognise the milk as being similar to cows’ milk and might react in the same way.

The main foods that are off limits to a child with a dairy allergy are:

More like this
  • Milk
  • Milk powder
  • Milk drinks
  • All types of cheese
  • Butter
  • Margarine
  • Yoghurt
  • Cream
  • Ice cream
  • Whey
  • Casein

Dairy-free alternatives

Dairy-free diets can be very restricted, but thankfully, there are now many milk-free alternatives. Most supermarkets have dairy-free ranges, which may include spreads made with vegetable fats, dairy-free biscuits and non-milk ice cream. Dairy foods are also widely available from health food shops and specialist online retailers.

Most formula milk is based on cow’s milk and is unsuitable for babies with a cow’s milk intolerance or allergy. Under the age of 1 year a suitable hypoallergenic formula such as extensively hydrolysed or amino acid based formula are appropriate alternatives and are available on prescription. Alternative milks such as calcium-enriched oat milk are not suitable for infants under the age of 1 as they do not contain sufficient energy, protein or micronutrients. Rice milk is lso not recommended as a regular drink by the Department of Health in children under the age of 4.5 years.

Hidden ingredients

As a parent of a child with an allergy, you will get used to looking for hidden ingredients. If your child has a dairy allergy, look out for the following on food labels:

  • Lactoalbumin
  • Lactoglobulin
  • Lactic acid (E270)
  • Lactose
  • Casein
  • Caseinate
  • Sodium caseinate
  • Hydrolysed casein
  • Ghee (unless it is made purely from vegetable oil)

Eating out

Eating out can be tough for a dairy-free child, especially when it comes to dessert. Most restaurants don’t list all the ingredients in each dish on the menu, but there are steps you can take:

  • Phone ahead: Ask for a copy of the menu either by email or post, so you can plan which dishes to choose in advance.
  • Choose the restaurant wisely: Certain restaurants are more likely to be dairy-free friendly than others. For example rice-based cuisines such as Thai, Japanese, Indian or Mexican are a safer bet than Italian.
  • Ask for details: Check ingredients with the waiter or waitress when you are ordering, or ask them to check with the chef. Whilst they may not know if the meal is totally dairy-free, they can explain how the dishes are cooked, for example in a batter or a cream sauce.