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Vegan Foods Aren't Always Dairy Free

Vegan Foods Aren’t Always Dairy Free: Engineered & Lab-Based Proteins, Shared Equipment, and More

    If you’ve been following a dairy free diet for more than two years, you may be comfortable eating vegan foods since they are milk free. However, things have changed and relying solely on the term vegan is no longer enough. Today I’ll be talking about lab based/engineered proteins that are designed to mimic milk.


    In the plant-based and vegan communities where VEGAN is their focal point, lab engineered proteins are seen as the wave of the future. It’s like the new sliced bread. It’s important to remember that whilst there is overlap, the vegan community is not an allergy focused community. We can eat some meals together, and understand the plight, however, at the end of the day, a lot of major and less common allergens are vegan friendly.

    If Something is Vegan is it Dairy Free?

    Let’s define what vegan means. The term vegan, in relation to food, means there are no animal derived ingredients in the food. This includes milk (from all mammals), eggs (from all poultry), fish flesh, or seafood flesh. It also means there aren’t any animal byproducts in the ingredient.

    Vegan goes further in that animal byproducts can’t be used in the making of the food either, such as bone char. Also know that true vegan foods also eliminate honey and any insect based products such as cricket flour, or dyes derived from insect shells.

    It’s important to note that major allergens such as wheat, soy, peanut, coconut, and tree nuts are ALL vegan and used regularly in vegan products. Additionally, less common allergens such as oat, corn, and cinnamon are widely used in vegan products too.

    Perfect Day: A Company Creating High Tech Milk Proteins Without The Cow

    This is the focal point I want to draw your attention to today. For years, lab based meats and animal proteins have been in the making, but none were commercially available until now. Perfect Day Foods now sells lab made cow’s milk proteins (whey and casein) that can be used to make “dairy free” dairy products.

    If you’re a science nerd like me, you’ll find the whole process very interesting. The company uses DNA synthesis in high tech labs to create milk proteins. Since we’ve already mapped the cow’s genome, actual cows weren’t needed to make their product, which makes them acceptable to vegans (those choosing to eliminate animal products for personal/ethical reasons).

    The proteins that Perfect Day makes are then sold to food manufacturers such as Brave Robot Ice Cream, Nick’s Vegan, and Smitten Ice Cream.

    Do Lab Made Milk Proteins Need to be Labeled?

    Right now, it’s all a bit confusing. Consumers might pick up a container that screams VEGAN, only to see “contains milk protein” at the end of the ingredient list. Right now, there’s no regulation has to HOW these proteins need to be labeled. You might see “non-animal whey protein”, “non-animal casein”, or “genetically engineered milk protein” on the ingredient list. Terms such as “non-animal” and “genetically engineered” are voluntary.

    Other terms to be aware of include:

    • Animal Free
    • Lactose Free
    • Plant-Based
    • Vegan

    The hard truth is that one, this is all new. Two, consumers are going to demand what they want and need to see. Three, and this is the one thing we have going for us as those allergic to dairy: no vegan company wants to be called out as the reason someone had an allergic reaction to milk.

    It means there’s going to be a lot of self-policing going on. Additionally, Perfect Day asks any company that uses their whey or casein to make it VERY clear on the label. Again, no one wants to be associated with a negative allergy-based news report because their vegan product wasn’t labeled well.

    If You Use The Word Vegan to Indicate Dairy Free, Stop.

    For those of you who have relied on the word vegan to mean dairy free, now is the time to change your language. We’re living in the early days of the lab grown proteins, so who knows how far it will get. If the milk protein is anything like Beyond Meat or Impossible Burger, they’ll get loads of investments and you’ll be seeing it everywhere.

    It’s especially important that if you’ve used the term vegan to help your milk allergic child identify safe foods, you’ll need to stop and teach them alternative ways/words.

    Additionally, anyone with a milk allergy will need to clearly read the front, back, and ingredients of any vegan products they wish to purchase.

    If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, RAISE has Safe Product Guides that are carefully curated and include companies that are not only allergy-focused, but also companies that don’t use shared equipment with what they claim to be free from.

    Does Vegan Food Contain Dairy?

    On the surface, no. However, if you’ve read anything I’ve published in the past, you know I always go deeper. First, there’s shared equipment. About 30% of people with food allergies can’t have food made on shared equipment with their allergens. Most dairy free (vegan) products are made on shared equipment with milk. You can read a lot more about this in this Dairy Free Swaps article.

    Next, we have to look at the new lab engineered proteins. By definition, they’re vegan since no animal was involved. However, they are NOT SAFE for anyone allergic to milk. So, does vegan food contain dairy? From the standpoint of someone allergic to dairy, sometimes. From the standpoint of an ethical vegan without an allergy, no.

    Are Vegan Foods Safe For Dairy Allergies?

    Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s going to depend on the person and the product. If the product contains the new lab based milk mimicking proteins, NO, it is not safe for someone with a dairy allergy.

    If the product is made on shared equipment with milk and the consumer can’t tolerate shared equipment, NO, it’s not safe for someone with a dairy allergy.

    If neither of those statements are true in regards to the product, YES, it should be safe for someone with a dairy allergy. There are still other questions you can call the company to ask about, but there’s a good chance you’ll be able to eat the food.

    Does Vegan Mean Dairy Free?

    Usually, yes. In 2020 I would have said absolutely. Now, with the lab grown proteins, it’s a cautious maybe. You’re going to need to read labels clearly and call companies if you have any doubts. Also remember, products you currently consume can change at any time.

    If you’re eating foods made by vegan focused companies, please call them. You’ll be hard pressed to find an allergy focused company that makes vegan products that also uses lab grown proteins.

    Can Vegan Food Contain Dairy Protein?

    A few years ago, nope. Now, yes. Here’s the thing, some will argue that it’s not really dairy protein since no cows were involved. Others will argue that since the molecular makeup is designed to mimic and can cause an allergic reaction, the food contains dairy.

    The overarching issues is that at the time of me writing this article, this still all SO NEW. There are only a handful of companies with nationwide distribution using these proteins. The issue will come in the next few years. We’ll see if companies are clear and responsible with their labeling, or if consumers will have to jump through a lot of hoops.

    It’s why personally, we always look for allergy-focused brands first and foremost.

    Vegan Does Not Mean Dairy Free (100% of the Time Anymore)

    I’m sorry to say that our time of relying on the term vegan, as dairy allergy folks, has come to an end. As we move forward, it’s important that you read labels each time you purchase something, and call companies before trying new products.

    For ethical vegans, lab grown proteins are the next big thing for them. This will allow them to create products that are a lot closer to milk containing foods.

    For those with a dairy allergy, it means making sure there aren’t any milk mimicking proteins in your products.

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