Thursday, 9 February 2012

Shopping Around... Dairy Free

When we first started shopping dairy free, I must admit I was a bit daunted. I mean, I knew that I was safe with plain meat and fruit and veg but there had to be more to food than that!! Would I have to give up cakes, biscuits and chocolate? It's all very well being born with a milk allergy - you never know what you're missing, but when it is suddenly thrust upon you (and until now you've been able to eat whatever you like) you know exactly what you're missing! 

Fortunately, as I was to discover, there is food that you can still enjoy out there... somewhere, it's just finding it! 

First, know your 'enemy'!

So you've got the list? You know the one that goes like this...

Check labels for: 
milk (including skimmed, semi skimmed, evaporated, condensed, dried, longlife, sterilised)
fromage frais
hydrolysed casein
whey solids
whey syrup sweetener
milk solids
non fat milk solids

Yes? Well, now you have it, anyway!

This'll be the list that you'll need to assist you in your shopping! The list looks a bit long long to remember off by heart, but of course most of these do not need to be learned off by heart as they are pretty much common sense. It's the unusual words, that you never realised had anything to do with milk (for me it was 'casein') that really need to be taken in. By the way, watch out for 'lactose free' - this does not mean 'milk free' or 'dairy free'!

Checking the labels

Dairy free shopping means checking the food labels on every food product you purchase (even if you have bought the product before, as recipes and ingredients can change) and being aware of all the ways that milk might be referred to on these labels. It can be a bit of a chore. 

Once upon a time, it was much more difficult to source suitable products, I believe health food stores were pretty much the only option (I shudder to think what people did before these came along). Now the big supermarkets have got in on the act; they've cottoned on to the 'need' or 'market' and made things slightly easier for us - in that they not only stock specific 'Free From' products but helpfully group them together in one section. The big stores also have lists of dairy free products which can be obtained from them, if you ask.

A supermarket Free From aisle

Helpful as this is, the frustrating thing is,that they often major on 'Gluten Free' products some of which (by no means all) are also dairy free, so again you need to check labels. Conversely and confusingly, sometimes products labelled 'Gluten Free' are sometimes also dairy free but do not state it openly. Waitrose gluten free chocolate chip cookies are just one example of this and it's a shame they don't make more of the dairy free labelling, because in my opinion, they're quite scrummy. 

Recently I met a mother whose child, like mine, was dairy free and who expressed her frustration at the restrictions of her child's diet. She just wanted to buy her daughter 'ordinary food'. If you are or have family members who are dairy free, you have probably shared this frustration at some point. The good news is, that there are products out there on the shelves of the supermarkets**. The bad news is that it is a bit like looking for a needle in haystack unless you get some hot tips from someone you know (I can still remember the huge sense of joy I felt, when told by the curate's wife, that Hobnobs were dairy free). 

Use modern technology

The next bit of good news is, that you can get an app for that!! Called 'Food Maestro,' its been made in conjunction with Health Care Professionals, who work with allergies. It doesn't work in all stores yet, but is getting there!

My husband has been my lifeline - he often finds food products, when doing the weekly shop (which, to make life easier, we now do online at Ocado). He originally started doing this to avoid the weekend scrum at the supermarkets and soon discovered he liked the way they laid out their product information. It was through investigating Ocado's website that he discovered my gluten free pasta, which I'm only mentioning here because it is made with chickpeas and is therefore quite handy if you are trying to top up your daily calcium (it's also available from Waitrose, in the fresh pasta section). Of course other stores do similar things with online shopping, you just need to find the one that suits you. 

You can also shop online by using Internet food stores devoted to allergies. I haven't used these personally but have looked at a few and found them quite interesting. They have a wider range than you might find at a supermarket and provide accurate information.  The only thing you might find with these is that delivery charges add to the price of already pricey items - Free From food is already expensive enough as it is! 

You may decide online shopping is not for you and may not have a smartphone on with which to use fancy apps but you can still find product information online, and browse for ideas before you hit the shops. In the past we have used Sainsburys site which seemed to be fairly helpful but I don't generally spend much time browsing for products, unless I'm looking for something specific. Also I get frustrated if I can see something online but not in my local store! 

It's worth shopping around 

Someone made me laugh the other week by pointing out that my husband*** works for one major supermarket, but that we shop elsewhere - at Ocado and Waitrose. This is not entirely true - living in an area where I have quite good access to a number of different supermarkets, I hop around the different shops according to where I happen to be that day or according to which Free From products I want, as the supermarkets all vary slightly in what they have to offer. Prices can vary too, as I found out last week, when I visited the Co-op and found that my favourite brand of Free From bread and my Free From Jaffa cakes are currently cheaper at the Co-op than at either Sainsburys or Tescos! 

I also still pop in to independent health food shops from time to time. They might be a bit pricier than the supermarkets but they quite often have products that you can't find elsewhere (except maybe the allergy food shops online). Where else can you find a dairy substitute made from pea protein? And they tend to offer their customer a bit more of a personal touch than supermarkets too. Who else might offer to order in something that they don't have in stock, but will offer to order it anyway, because they can get hold of it and they know you want it - like those Free From ice cream cones I wanted, last summer? Yes! These days you can get dairy free ice cream! Mmm! Sounds like a cue for another blog!

*Watch out for 'lactose free' on labels - this does not necessarily mean 'dairy free'!

**The bad news is that if you are really sensitive to milk, a lot of these products may not be suitable for you. Even if they do not contain milk in the ingredients, they may still contain 'traces of milk'. This is because they have other products made on the same production line that are made with dairy - in which case they cannot guarantee 100% that a tiny amount of dairy might not enter the one you're after. 

NB Something else to look out for - if something is suitable for Vegans then it may also be dairy free. Although some products that say they are Vegan still say 'may contain milk'. The only way to be sure is to (yep, you've got it) check the label carefully everytime.

*** The Hub no longer works for any supermarket - just in case you're wondering!


Food labelling is soon to change in the UK - to come in to line with the EU. The change is due to take place in December 2014, but many food manufacturers are already changing the labelling. All of the eight major allergens will HAVE to be highlighted in some way - most manufacturers seem to be using a bold type for this. Link to Food Gov's information on this here.

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