Dairy Free Diets

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Alpro Coconut Milk

Rise of Dairy Free

Nowadays, 15% of Europeans are ‘’’dairy-free’’’ for medical or lifestyle reasons (1). Lifestyle choices include concerns over lactose intolerance and/ or the view that plant-based products are better than dairy.

Added to this, there are concerns that milk could even be bad for your bones (2), as well as being potentially linked to cancer, diabetes, asthma and acne(1). In contrast, dairy-free alternatives are low in fat and calories. However, it is unlikely that skin complaints arise because of failing to absorb lactose in the gut. And while there is a potential link between dairy and prostate cancer, dairy is also more likely to protect against colorectal cancer and reduce potential risk for bladder cancer(1).

But because of the complexity of milk itself, there is still much work to be done on unpicking the pros and cons of dairy.

Lactose Intolerance

The ability to consume milk in adulthood arose some 7000 years ago. All babies can produce the enzyme lactase, so they can digest milk. But this switches off when they start eating solids. However, for 35% of adult humans they continue to make lactase and so can digest dairy throughout their life. This enables dairy farming humans to have a ready and nutritional food source in dairy products.

Without lactase, lactose moves into the colon where it is broken down by gut bacteria into gas and fluid. This creates bloating, cramps and diarrhoea. In China and South East Asia, 90% are lactose intolerant, but this falls to 2-20% in Europeans (1).

Potential Issues Of Dairy Free

Ingredients In Typical Coconut Milk
Ingredients In Typical Soya Milk

The question, however, is whether people really are lactose intolerant or if they are self-diagnosing themselves, so driving up dairy free alternatives. This issue is underpinned both because lactose intolerance has not actually increased within European populations and because many test kits are not reliable or based on solid science.

Further, the dairy-free alternatives are a mixed bag. Some are low in protein versus dairy – so milk is 3% protein but rice milk is 0.1% protein. Then while the plant-based milks are low in calories, they don’t contain many of the useful minerals and vitamins in dairy milk. So they need to be fortified with calcium, vitamin D, Bs and others (see images for coconut milk and soya milk). Generally, plant-based milks are quite a manufactured product to replace something in dairy milk that’s naturally available, for all its faults.


In conclusion, there are pros and cons of having a dairy-free, plus the science of dairy milk is complex. Therefore, this will remain an area of intense discussion for those choosing dairy-free for lifestyle reasons, but self-evidently less so for those who are diagnosed as lactose intolerant.


(1) Geddes, L. (2015) Gone off, New Scientist, 25 July 2015, 227: 3031, pp33-37. Accessed 18 August 2015.

(2) Michaëlsson, K., Wolk, A., Langenskiöld, S., Basu, S., Warensjö Lemming, E., Melhus, H., Byberg, L. (2014) Milk intake and risk of mortality and fractures in women and men: cohort studies, British Medical Journal, 28 October 2014. Accessed 18 August 2015.