Dairy-free diet
Discovering that you are intolerant or allergic to dairy products can seem difficult to start with. Luckily, with a little knowledge it can be a lot easier to shop and eat dairy-free than you might first imagine. Let us start by separating dairy allergy and intolerance as they are two distinctly different disorders.

What is the difference between an allergy and intolerance?
The terms 'food allergy' and 'food intolerance' are often used interchangeably, although they actually refer to very different conditions. A true food 'allergy' is a reaction which involves the immune system and can cause a range of symptoms very quickly. In some cases, an allergic reaction to a food can be severe and even life-threatening. In contrast, an 'intolerance' is generally less severe, does not involve the immune system, and symptoms are often delayed.

What is dairy allergy?
Cow's milk allergy is an immune response to one or more of the proteins (albumin, casein or whey) in cow's milk. This means that when you consume cow's milk, your immune system identifies the protein as dangerous and mobilizes your body's defenses. If you are allergic to dairy, you will experience an immediate Type 1 hypersensitivity reaction. This response can be triggered by a very small amount of milk protein. Reactions range in severity from acute dermatological or digestive manifestations such as eczema, hives or diarrhea to more severe potentially life threatening anaphylaxis or chronic malabsorption and inflammation. The only effective treatment for cow's milk allergy is to fully eliminate cow's milk and any products containing it.

What is dairy intolerance?
Intolerance to lactose in cow's milk, is a non-immunological condition. The age of onset, previous history of milk tolerance and dose related symptoms of bloating and diarrhea make it relatively easy to distinguish intolerance from true allergy to cow's milk. Dairy intolerance may have various causes, the most common is an inability to digest lactose. All animal milks (cow's goat's and sheep's) contain a sugar called lactose. We make an enzyme in our guts, called lactase, which breaks down the lactose in the milk to be absorbed. Some people do not produce enough lactase to digest the sugar. Without lactase, the sugar ferments in the gut. An intolerance to dairy is less severe but may also bring about digestive, skin and inflammatory symptoms.

Woman holding her stomach in pain

Everybody's different
Individuals suffering from lactose intolerance might find it beneficial to supplement lactase enzymes to help digest dairy products. It is advised that you consult a doctor or accredited health practitioner before embarking on a supplement program.

If you suspect you are intolerant or allergic to dairy products, you should go to your GP for diagnosis.

Foods to include and exclude
The problem for those trying to avoid foods containing dairy products is that they include the most commonly used ingredients in food manufacture. It may become harder to buy ready-made foods and you will need to become an avid reader of labels and ingredients lists.

Alternatives to cow's milk and dairy products:
Goat, sheep and buffalo milk...and products (such as cream, butter, yogurt and cheese) - it is worth checking if you are able to tolerate small quantities of other animal milks as they are now quite easy to obtain and available both fresh and UHT.Soya milk alternative products...(such as soya-based cream, yogurt and cheese alternatives) - soya milk alternative has been a staple vegetarian ingredient for many years so there are different varieties. It comes sweetened and unsweetened, flavored and plain, fortified and unfortified. Most cook up well in sauces and soups and can be used in cappuccinos. Soya cream alternative works as a pouring cream but you cannot whip it. Soya yogurt alternatives both plain and fruit flavored are now widely available. Hard soya cheese alternative does not bear much resemblance to real cheese, soya cream cheese alternative is more successful.Coconut milk...is an excellent cooking milk to which very few people react. Coconut milk is extensively used in Southeast Asian cooking. Coconut yogurt and coconut cream are also available. The cream is available both in tins and as a solid block, which needs to be broken down with hot water. Coconut oil is an excellent butter substitute.Plant-based milk substitutes...include rice, oat, almond and soya milk. Learn how to make dairy-free milk alternative at home.Alternative spreads and margarines...check the labels carefully as some contain whey or casein. Most can be used in sauces and baking (pastry, cakes etc.). They are less good for frying.