Gluten and dairy are not allergens

The list of 14 allergens can be seen here. Gluten and dairy are not on it.

But gluten-containing cereals and milk are.

This is not a trivial distinction.

Tesco currently have a milk free section and a separate dairy free section on their website. At the time of writing, you can see it here. Twitter user Andrew questioned Tesco on the difference between the two, and received a two-tweet response which made little sense.

If you choose ‘milk free’ you get to a page whose title bar reads ‘lactose free’ and a section divided into four-subsections – Bakery, Store Cupboard, Treats & Snacks and … Dairy. This also makes no sense: dairy products under a milk free category? There’s also a dairy section under the dairy free category.

The good news is that Tesco agreed that this was a problem, and have told me they’re addressing it. But this just adds to a long-held concern about our using the word ‘dairy’ in allergy conversation: it’s not a clearly defined or understood term, and I suspect that it leads to problems such as this one. I’ve seen ‘dairy free’ applied to foods free of cow’s milk, but containing goat’s or sheep’s – but ‘milk’ – the actual allergen – incorporates all mammalian milks.

Should we abandon ‘dairy free’ and stick only to ‘milk free’? It is milk which has to appear on the ingredients label, after all. I’m beginning to think we should. If allergen thresholds are ever introduced, surely we will need to?

Naturally, I don’t feel we should abandon ‘gluten free’ – the most important two words in any coeliac shopper’s vocabulary – but not every manufacturer or consumer understands that it is the grain which is the allergen as far as the regulations are concerned – not the gluten.

This means it is ‘wheat’, ‘barley’, ‘rye’ or ‘oats’ which should be highlighted in lists of ingredients – not ‘gluten’ (see Clause 30 here). Marks and Spencer do not appear to have received both parts of the memo.

Because of this, remember that food service outlets aren’t obliged to tell you that there is gluten in a dish per se – they’re obliged to tell you that there is wheat, rye, barley or oats in a dish – from which you will almost always be able to confirm that there is gluten present.

Yes, it’s confusing, but gluten-related labelling law and ’14 allergen’ law are distinct, and don’t necessarily work together perfectly. This is a particular problem when it comes to the special case of oats – and I’ll be blogging about this next …


  1. sugarpuffish

    I had Andrew ask the question as Tesco keep ignoring my requests to explain themselves both for the labels on products & their website. I think given the new EU laws it would make more sense to drop the word "dairy" and use "milk" instead. I never thought dairy was a confusing word but having asked around surprising how people think dairy includes eggs and I even say the tweet about bacon lol 😀

  2. Alex G

    Ha – yep, bacon was a new one to me as well! Many years ago, I used the word 'dairy' to mean 'milk' in an interview with a dietitian and was sharply told off. "Dairy is a place where milk products are made" she snapped. Deep down, I think that has stuck with me …

  3. Carly Talbot

    Funnily enough I was in a restaurant at the weekend and explained my daughter was allergic to 'milk'. A while later the waitress came back from the kitchen to clarify if it was 'milk' or 'dairy' she couldn't have, as they cook with butter sometimes; so in some senses I suppose best to stick with 'dairy' when explaining it- never sure what's the best to make people understand! Don't want to have to say 'no cow's, goats, sheeps milk, cheese, yogurt, butter or derivatives thereof' every time we fancy lunch out!!

  4. Alex G

    Yeah we probably have gone beyond the point of no return with 'dairy' as it's in such popular use – and as the example you give illustrates, it serves a purpose as an umbrella term for all milk and milk products!

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