How do you know if you’re reacting to dairy?

Dairy free

Avoiding dairy for health reasons has become increasingly common amongst New Zealanders, but it’s not always easy to tell whether dairy is the cause of your symptoms. Here’s some information to help steer you in the right direction.

‘Dairy’ is the collective term for cow’s milk and anything made from it. Most people who experience symptoms from dairy fall into one of the three categories below:
1. Intolerance to the lactose (milk sugar) in cows milk.
2. Intolerance to the protein in cows milk.
3. Allergy to the protein in cows milk.

Tell me more about lactose intolerance
Lactose is broken down in your gut by the enzyme lactase. If you don’t make enough of this enzyme, lactose will move through your gut undigested, causing symptoms such as nausea, cramping, bloating, gas and diarrhoea. This is ‘lactose intolerance'.

It’s relatively common among adults, but rare in young children (unless there is underlying gut damage, such as is seen with coeliac disease). 

  • How do I know if I have a lactose intolerance?
    Usually, lactose intolerance is diagnosed by taking lactose out of your diet and seeing if your symptoms disappear. Lactose is then carefully re-introduced to determine your level of tolerance.
  • What should I avoid if I have a lactose intolerance?
    Good news! If you have a lactose intolerance, you don’t need to avoid dairy completely. Some dairy products, including hard cheeses and butter, naturally contain low levels of lactose. Cow’s milk-based lactose-free milks, yoghurts and cheeses are also available.

Tell me more about cow’s milk protein intolerance
Cow’s milk protein intolerance occurs if your body reacts negatively to the protein in cow’s milk. To my knowledge, the exact pathway isn’t well understood. The condition appears to be inadequately studied in both children and adults. Symptoms are thought to be varied and may include nausea, gas, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, constipation, nasal congestion, skin rashes or eczema.

  • How do I know if I have a cow’s milk protein intolerance?
    Medical testing isn’t generally helpful in the diagnosis of a cow’s milk intolerance. A complete elimination of cow’s milk followed by a careful re-introduction, all the while tracking your symptoms, is usually recommended.

    In my experience, not many people manage this well without support. As cow’s milk is added to many foods, some of which you’d never expect, you’ll need some help learning what to avoid. The length of time you eliminate milk for, and the re-introduction process are also important.
  • What should I avoid if I have a cow’s milk protein intolerance?
    The management of cow’s milk protein intolerance varies from person to person. Your symptoms may disappear if you remove only the visible dairy from your diet such as milk, yoghurt, cheese, cream and ice-cream. Equally, you may not keep symptoms at bay without removing every trace of cow’s milk protein from your diet.

Tell me more about cow’s milk allergy

A milk allergy occurs if your immune system reacts abnormally to the protein in milk. Milk allergies are quite common in young children, affecting about one in 50. As most children will grow out of their allergy, it’s not as common in adults. Symptoms can include reflux, vomiting, diarrhoea, poor weight gain, eczema, hives or welts, tingling of the mouth, wheezing, or swelling of the lips, face or eyes.

Reactions to cow’s milk are usually mild, but severe reactions, called anaphylaxis can also occur.

  • How do I know if I have a cow’s milk allergy?
    If you think you or your child might be allergic to cow’s milk, the first step is to go and chat to your GP. Diagnosis typically involves skin prick and/or blood testing.

  • What should I avoid if I have a cow’s milk allergy?
    If you have a cow’s milk allergy, it’s important to follow the advice of your specialist when it comes to your diet. Usually, you’ll need to avoid any foods that contain cow’s milk or the milk from other mammals such as goats or sheep. This takes some knowledge, as milk-based ingredients aren’t always easily to recognise.

Click here to check out our Dairy free selection of snacks and pantry staples!

Please remember that it’s not a good idea to remove dairy from your or your child’s diet for extended periods without medical advice. This is because dairy is a good source of many of the minerals and vitamins we need for good health.

This information is for educational purposes only and doesn’t replace advice or
information given to you by medical professionals.


This guest blog was written by Elly McKenzie from The Insides Guide, especially for My Delicious Pantry. To explore Elly’s knowledge-boosting online guides or to
book a consultation, check out her website

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