6 Milk Allergy Myths: What People Get Wrong

Cow’s milk allergy. It’s so common (especially in young children), but often misunderstood. Here are 6 common milk allergy myths: some of the most frustrating things I’ve found that people don’t understand about living with severe cow’s milk protein allergy.

butter, cream, milk and cheese with text overlay "6 milk allergy myths, common misunderstandings about cow's milk protein allergy"

#1 “It’s not like peanut allergy”

This is a common one. And of many milk allergy myths, this one can be dangerous. Apparently a lot of people think that as far as foods go, only peanuts cause severe allergic reactions or anaphylaxis. Unfortunately this not the case. People with cow’s milk allergy can have reactions ranging from mild to severe or life threatening. They may need immediate treatment with an EpiPen.

Mild to moderate symptoms of a milk allergy include:

  • hives on the skin;
  • swelling (face, lips, eyes);
  • abdominal pain and/or vomiting.

Symptoms of severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) to milk include:

  • trouble breathing;
  • wheezing or persistent coughing;
  • swollen tongue;
  • swelling or tightness in the throat;
  • difficulty talking;
  • dizziness or collapsing;
  • young children becoming pale or floppy.

I’ve witnessed an anaphylactic reaction to cow’s milk first hand in my own family. Fortunately it happened in a controlled environment when we were at the hospital for an oral food challenge. It isn’t something I’d like to go through again.

#2 “Only children have a milk allergy” or “you’ll grow out of it”

There is at least a reasonable basis for people to think this. Milk allergy is really common in children. About 1 in 50 babies in Australia have cow’s milk protein allergy. And most of them (about 80%) do out grow it by the time they start school. But not everyone does!

Milk allergy can definitely persist into the teenage years and beyond. People can even develop an allergy to milk as adults.

We’ve been avoiding milk in our house for 13 years so far and still counting.

#3 “At least milk is easy to avoid”

Oh no, it’s not! I personally think it’s one of the hardest allergens to avoid.

Let’s start with the obvious, dairy products: milk, butter, cheese, yoghurt, cream, ice cream. That’s not too hard. Or is it? Sometimes it isn’t enough to tell people that you have a cow’s milk allergy, as they can assume that this just means milk itself. Often I have to spell out that this means all dairy, as people can tend forget about butter and cheese and other foods made from milk.

Here are some of the other places milk is often found:

  • baked goods like cakes, biscuits and pastries
  • chocolate and lollies
  • breads
  • breakfast cereals
  • margarine
  • baby foods and rusks
  • drink flavourings
  • pasta sauce
  • flavoured chips
  • deli meats (ham, turkey etc are often basted with milk)
  • processed meats like sausages and hamburgers
  • dips
  • soups
  • sorbet and gelati
  • powdered foods and flavourings (gravy, stock, instant mashed potato, noodle flavourings)

Sometimes milk is where you really wouldn’t expect it. It might be in something you would reach for as a substitute for dairy, like soy cheese or coconut milk.

Milk is everywhere. That’s why checking food labels is so important.

#4 “It’s ok, we have lactose free milk”

This milk allergy myth is so frustrating. Lactose is a natural sugar found in milk. Some people have trouble digesting this sugar: they are lactose intolerant. This can cause lots of unpleasant and uncomfortable digestive symptoms. Cow’s milk allergy is an allergy to proteins found in milk (mainly casein and whey) which cause the body to react. An allergic reaction to milk can range from mild to severe or life threatening. Lactose free dairy products still have the milk proteins in them and are not safe for people with milk allergy.

Infographic showing main differences between cow's milk allergy and lactose intolerance including prevalence, cause and symptoms

“… or A2 milk”

Frighteningly, I’ve heard this from a medical professional, who suggested that A2 milk would be suitable for a child with milk protein allergy. Again, A2 milk still has milk proteins and is definitely not suitable for people with milk allergy.

#5 “These are gluten free”

This is just strange. But if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this I’d be very rich. Eating out, you do the right thing and disclose your milk allergy and ask if there is anything without milk in it. The well-meaning person serving you points to the top shelf of the display cabinet and says “all of these are gluten free”. I really do not understand this confusion.

Yes, there are people who are allergic to wheat. Other people have coeliac disease and definitely can’t have gluten. Then there are people who are intolerant to both gluten and milk. There are also people who choose not to eat gluten or dairy for various health or lifestyle reasons. But it is not the same as having an allergy to the protein found in cow’s milk.

And
#6 “If you have to avoid milk, aren’t you are going to miss out on pizza and dessert?

Diary free ice cream and pizza with text "milk allergy myths"

Not at all! This is one of the milk allergy myths that it makes me very happy to disprove.

Pizza is on high rotation at our house. We love to make our own from scratch, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also order take away.

Thanks to the increasing availability of vegan food, there is an enormous variety of dairy free cheese available now. You can buy it at the supermarket right next to the milk based cheeses. And our local pizza place happily makes us a pepperoni pizza that is completely dairy free. Just be careful, as some vegan cheese do have traces of milk and some are made with nuts, especially cashews. And always disclose your allergy when ordering food away from home rather than making assumptions that vegan food will be a safe option. You can read more about this in our post Is vegan food always dairy and egg free?.

And dessert is sorted too. We have tried and enjoyed a host of dairy (and egg and nut) free ice creams. You can even easily make them into your own dairy free ice cream cake. We love that Magnum ice creams come in dairy free varieties now! The salted caramel is delicious. Feel like pancakes? No problem. We’ve have a great dairy free pancake recipe for you – Easiest ever allergy friendly pancakes

There are so many other milk free substitutes available – dairy free spreads, soy or coconut yoghurts, even soy or coconut condensed milk. It makes it so easy to cook your usual recipes and just substitute where needed. No need for fancy dairy free recipes most of the time. All of the easy recipes on our recipes page are milk free, including our dairy free coconut ice.

References and more information about cows milk allergy

You can read more about cow’s milk (dairy) allergy in the Australian Society of Clinical Immunology & Allergy’s fact sheet. Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia also has a wealth of information about milk allergy on its website, including a handy milk allergy allergen card.

How do you go managing your milk allergy and making sure people understand that it’s more than just an upset tummy? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

(Updated 24 January 2022)

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Rachael

    Thanks for sharing the myths! Very interesting! Both my infants had dairy intolerances that they grew out of when they were a little older. It was so hard for me to avoid when breastfeeding because it was in everything. Luckily by my second they had come out with a lot more dairy free options and it was a little easier. I grew to love a lot of the substitutions and cook/eat mostly dairy free still even though they’ve grown out of it!

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