We constantly hear about the dairy-free craze; it's all over social media with claims about how it helps you lose weight or clears your skin. On the other end, we all have that friend who is lactose-intolerant and gets comments about how their life must be so hard because going dairy-free is terrible. Here's the thing, they're not the same. Not even close. There are key differences between the terms lactose-free vs dairy-free that you should be aware of.

It's all in the molecules


Image from WikiCommons

Let's start off with the biggest (but physically smallest) divergence between lactose-free and dairy-free. Lactose–also called milk sugar–is a sugar in milk that some people lack the ability to digest. Dairy has milk proteins, casein and whey

We've all heard of whey protein and the like–I mean, you put it in your protein shake after the gym and all that. But there's also casein protein, which makes up about 80% of milk.

So if you're debating lactose-free vs dairy-free consider the fact that lactose can be avoided and you can buy products with lactose removed. If you're dairy-free...good luck, mate.


milk, yogurt, cream, dairy, sweet, dairy product, milkshake
Aakanksha Joshi

If a food is lactose-free, that means it doesn't contain lactose. This is helpful for people who are lactose-intolerant (read: the majority of people you think are dairy-free), as they can't digest lactose. You probably know someone who's lactose-intolerant (aka me and 65% of the human population). Our digestive systems aren't made to have milk after their formative years. 

When you're looking for lactose-free vs dairy-free items, you tend to avoid items that say "lactose" on them, and not necessarily items with milk or other proteins. As someone who is lactose-intolerant, I still use whey protein a good amount of the time. It's not really a problem.

As a society, we've been making lactose-free (or lactose-intolerant aids) products for a long time. I mean, Lactaid has been around for what feels like forever.


milk, yogurt
Halle Davis

In our next stop on the whole lactose-free vs dairy-free explanation train, let me explain what dairy-free means. Dairy-free means that you use no milk products whatsoever. No butter, no cheese, no nothing. Pretty simple, right? It's pretty hard to mess up.

That's what makes it different from lactose-free. Lactose-free products can still have dairy, they just have lactase added to them to help break down the lactose within the dairy product. Dairy-free means that it doesn't come from a cow. However, please be aware that there is no FDA approved definition of dairy-free.

If you have a milk allergy, you're probably going to be going dairy-free. However, if you're lactose-intolerant it doesn't necessarily mean you have to go dairy-free, you just probably want to go lactose-free.

Lactose ≠ Dairy

The big takeaway of the lactose-free vs dairy-free discussion comes down to the molecules: are you trying to avoid milk sugar or milk proteins? Remember, something dairy-free is automatically lactose-free but not vice versa.

It comes down to your diet and body. If you're lactose-intolerant, you can combat that with lactase and lactose-free products. If you need to be dairy-free for your own health, then avoid any form of milk product.

Otherwise, I'm guessing you're looking at this because you're vegan or want to be like Khloe Kardashian. Either way, you know what the difference is now. So stop telling me "not having milk must be so hard."