Spotlight on... dairy-free
What does it mean to be allergic or intolerant to dairy? What are the health implications and where can you find answers? Nutritional therapist Jo Lewin is on hand to help...
Milk is high in nutrients such as calcium, vitamin B2, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamin B12. Calcium is an important mineral involved in the formation and maintenance of strong bones and teeth. It also plays a regulatory role in muscle contraction and blood clotting functions.
Calcium - not just from dairy
It is recommended that we aim for 800 - 1000mg of calcium in our diets per day. Pregnant and post menopausal women may need more. In general, we are led to believe that we do not obtain sufficient calcium if we do not consume milk and dairy produce. However, calcium is readily available in foods such as fish, green leafy vegetables such as watercress, collard greens, kale and broccoli; fruit, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, pulses and whole grains and is increasingly fortified in a variety of foods. If you are following a dairy-free diet, try to ensure it is nutrient dense and full of whole foods. Speak to your GP if you suspect you may be at risk of nutritional deficiency.
The importance of vitamin D
Osteoporosis (premature bone loss) has become a major public health concern. Alongside calcium, vitamin D plays a central role in the growth and repair of bones. The two work together; we need vitamin D to absorb calcium. Vitamin D helps the body transport calcium to the bones making them strong. Sunlight helps the body naturally synthesise vitamin D. It is recommended that we aim for at least 30 minutes of exposure to sunlight to support vitamin D production. When sunlight is scarce, opt for sources of dietary vitamin D found in oily fish, eggs, liver and fortified cereals.
There are many myths surrounding milk and the consumption of dairy products. Some believe that semi-skimmed/skimmed milk has a lower calcium content that the full-fat variety. This is false. Lowering the fat content does not affect the calcium level. It is also a common myth that eggs fall into the dairy category. This is also untrue; eggs are not a dairy product. Live yoghurts can sometimes be tolerated by people with lactose intolerance. This is because the bacterial cultures used in making yoghurt produce the lactase enzyme required for digestion.
Things to watch out for
It is advisable to read the labels on everything you plan to eat and create a 'safe' foods list.
Other animal milks: Some people with dairy allergy and intolerance can tolerate sheep, goats and/or buffalo milk.
Labelling: 'Dairy Free' food labels only applies to cow's milk, not to other animal milks.
Alternatives to cow's milk and dairy products:
- Goat, sheep and buffalo milk and products (such as cream, butter, yoghurt 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 products (cream, yoghurt and cheese) - soya milk has been a staple vegetarian ingredient for many years so there are different varieties. It comes sweetened and unsweetened, flavoured and plain, fortified and unfortified. Most cook up well in sauces and soups and can be used in cappuccinos. Soya cream works as a pouring cream but you cannot whip it. Soya yoghurts both plain and fruit flavoured are now widely available. Hard soya cheese does not bear much resemblance to real cheese, soya cream cheese is more successful.
- Coconut milk is an excellent cooking milk to which very few people react. It is extensively used in Southeast Asian cooking. Coconut cream comes 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.
- Dairy-free spreads - 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.
Delicious dairy free dinner ideas:
Creamy tarragon chicken bake
Chicken fricassee with new potatoes & asparagus
A pancake recipe using soya milk:
Vegan tomato & mushroom pancakes
Try out the dairy-free milk or yoghurt alternatives to accompany this yummy nutty granola:
Jo Lewin holds a degree in nutritional therapy and works as a community health nutritionist and private consultant. She is an accredited member of BANT, covered by the association's code of ethics and practice.