Many people may not realize that a surprising number of our foods contain dairy. Milk and modified milk ingredients, such as butter oil, casein, whey and powdered milk are often added to fortify our foods with calcium and protein, enhance flavours or lengthen the shelf-life.
Dairy is hiding in a lot of foods where you least expect to find it, making avoiding dairy difficult for people who need to manage dairy allergies or who choose to eat a dairy-free diet. Names on product labels can be deceiving, and many foods that are marketed as whole foods may actually contain milk.
Luckily, more brands are starting to move away from using fillers and additives, and require all manufacturers to identify dairy in ingredient lists, as milk is considered a top allergen. Regardless, it is important to always be vigilant and read ingredient lists carefully before consuming anything, or serving food to someone who avoids dairy.
I took a quick stroll around my local grocery store and found many foods with misleading labels that have dairy hiding in them. Here is my list of the top 10 surprising foods that can contain dairy:
Many doctors recommend starting babies on solid foods with fortified cereals. These ready-to-eat meals are called “rice cereals” or “oat cereals,” and a consumer could easily assume that they only contain rice or oats, but infant cereals often contain skim milk powder for added protein and calcium.
Regular potato chips are made with potatoes, salt, and oil but flavoured chips can often contain lactose and other milk ingredients. We expect to find milk in flavours like cheddar or sour cream and onion, but it is surprising to find milk as a common ingredient in flavours such as barbecue, ketchup and dill pickle.
Most consumers expect “original” tomato sauce to simply contain tomatoes and spices, so it’s surprising to find that some pasta sauces, such as Ragu Original Pasta Sauce, actually contain grated Romano cheese. We expect to find dairy in jars of pasta sauces that call out cheese and cream in their names, but not many people would think to look for cheese in “original” or “traditional” tomato sauces.
Fish sticks and chicken nuggets
If you’ve ever made homemade fish sticks or chicken fingers, it’s easy to assume that commercial breaded fish or chicken simply contains the protein in question with wheat, spices and possibly some egg. It’s surprising to find that almost all of the frozen products you find in stores contain dairy, and it’s usually listed towards the end of the ingredient list in the form of milk ingredients or modified milk ingredients in the breading mixture.
Nutella is a hazelnut cocoa spread, which may lead some consumers to assume that it is like other nut butters that are simply made of nuts, oil, salt and sweeteners. It may surprise some people to know that while Nutella’s main ingredients are sugar, palm oil, hazelnuts and cocoa, it also contains skim milk powder and whey powder.
Granola and breakfast bars
Homemade granola bars are often made with grains, nuts, seeds and sticky sweeteners like honey or molasses. Packaged granola bars and breakfast bars are based on the same ingredients, but often contain modified milk ingredients as additives to help fortify the bars with calcium and protein, and also extend the shelf-life of the bars.
All beef hot dogs
With a name like “All Beef Hot Dogs,” it’s easy to assume that these hot dogs contain only beef, however, that is not always the case. Many of the popular hot dog brands that market “all beef” wieners contain modified milk ingredients as the fourth ingredient after beef, water and corn starch.
Salad dressings can be deceiving. It’s easy to assume that creamy dressing would contain milk, while vinaigrettes would not, but this isn’t always the case. For example, Kraft’s creamy Thousand Islands dressing does not contain any dairy, but their “Sundried Tomato and Oregano” vinaigrette contains Parmesan and Romano cheese, which one would never guess from its name. It’s important to read through the full ingredient lists, especially with salad dressings, as product names, descriptions and textures aren’t a reliable way to identify whether they contain dairy.
Canned pasta in tomato sauce
Many children love eating pasta in plain tomato sauce, which is why ready-to-eat canned pasta that is often made in fun shapes like alphabets, princesses or superheroes, is a staple in the pantry of many families. The canned goods are labelled for simplicity as “pasta in tomato sauce,” but the sauce often contains cheese or milk for additional flavour and nutrients.
Dairy is an expected ingredient in cheese-flavoured crackers, but not necessarily in “Original” flavoured crackers. In some cases, crackers can contain dairy in the form of modified milk ingredients, which would serve to lengthen the shelf-life of the crackers and improve the texture. For example, all flavours of Breton brand crackers, including their gluten-free crackers, have modified milk ingredients or whey powder buried in the ingredient list.
is a food allergy advocate and founder of , an online resource for allergy-friendly living. This former dairy junkie became an expert in allergy-friendly cuisine while figuring out how to feed her child with multiple food allergies. Pauline aims to inspire culinary adventures and experimentation with her series, “An Allergy-Friendly Makeover,” and shares the valuable knowledge she has gained from her trials, errors and adventures in living with food allergies with “The Allergy-Friendly Top 10.” Pauline’s short-term goals include getting a full night’s sleep and drinking her entire cup of coffee while hot.