12 Foods You Didn’t Realize Contain Dairy

If you're avoiding dairy, you quickly learn it's lurking everywhere in the grocery store. Beware sneaky foods that contain dairy—many innocent-seeming products add dairy for flavor or creaminess.

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Broken chocolate pieces and cocoa powder on wooden background
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Chocolate and Hot Chocolate

You already knew about milk chocolate. But plenty of chocolate bars include dairy, even dark chocolate! Some powdered hot chocolate contains dairy, too, for creaminess and flavor. Always check the label.

Looking for a tasty nondairy milk? We ranked eight of the most popular products.

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Bread and Crackers

Some manufacturers add lactose to bread or crackers, often as a sweetener. Whey may also appear—it’s a good preservative that keeps bread moist. Be sure to scan the ingredients list. It can be helpful to shop in the vegan section, especially if you’re unsure what a certain ingredient means.

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Lemon layer cake
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Baked Goods and Frosting

OK, if you’re a baker, this probably isn’t so surprising. But most desserts, from cookies to cakes, contain some form of dairy. Cookies often contain butter, cake may contain butter and yogurt or milk, frosting is often made with milk or cream. If you’re offered a baked good at a party or restaurant, double-check before indulging. (If your kid is dairy-free, this can be a bummer, so you may want to pack a dairy-free treat from home.)

Getting discouraged? Here are delicious dessert recipes that DON’T contain dairy.

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Hot dog

Hot Dogs and Sausages

Weird, right? Even “all beef” hot dogs sometimes contain dairy, as can sausages and even cold cuts. Look for kosher varieties to be sure they’re dairy-free. If your butcher makes sausage or roasts deli meat on-site, those products are less likely to contain added ingredients like dairy. Always ask!

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What? Margarine seems like a nondairy alternative to butter—but it’s not. Many margarines add lactose to mimic that buttery flavor. Don’t be fooled. (Here’s the real difference between margarine and butter.)

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Traditional mashed potatoes
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Instant Mashed Potatoes

Looking for a quick and easy side? Avoid instant or flaked mashed potatoes, which often have butter or powdered milk added for flavoring. Serve up one of our dairy-free sides instead.

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Salad dressings
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Salad Dressings

Yep, those creamy salad dressings may get their creamy texture from lactose. Reduced sugar dressings in particular lean on added lactose to add a sweet, rich flavor. Luckily, it’s easy to make your own salad dressing, and most keep in the fridge for several days.

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Potato chips
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Flavored Chips

Most plain chips, like potato or corn, don’t contain dairy. But flavored varieties, from sour cream and onion to cheddar, probably do contain dairy.

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Medicine and vitamins
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Medicine and Vitamins

According to GoDairyFree.com, lactose is used as a base for more than 20% of prescription medications, and about 6% of vitamins and over-the-counter medicines. Read the ingredients list carefully, and be sure to ask the pharmacist before you make a purchase.

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Tuna can on the old wood table background

Canned Tuna

Here’s one of the most surprising foods that contain dairy. Some canned tuna brands add casein, a milk protein, to tuna as a filler. Always check the label, because it’s often listed as “hydrolized caseinate.”

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Chicken noodle soup in can
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Soup and Broth

Canned or boxed soups and meat or vegetable broths may contain some form of dairy, often milk solids. This includes the obvious cream-of-soups, but any soup or even plain broth isn’t a sure bet.

Instead, find a dairy-free dinner to serve the family.

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Chewing gum
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Chewing Gum

One of the most surprising sources of dairy may be chewing gum. Look for “Recaldent,” sometimes found in Trident, or casein on the label.

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Woman checking food labelling in supermarket
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Other Names for Milk and Dairy

Always read the ingredient label! In addition to milk, butter, and cream, dairy may appear as whey, casein, curds, milk by-products, milk solids or dry milk powder. If you see a product labeled with creamy-sounding words—creamed, cheese-flavored, chocolate-flavored—it will likely contain some lactose. The safest rule of thumb is assume you can’t eat something until you prove otherwise.

Kelsey Rae Dimberg
A former in-house editor at Taste of Home, Kelsey now writes, cooks and travels from her home base of Chicago. After going gluten-free over a decade ago, Kelsey turned to home cooking and baking as a way to recreate her favorite foods. Her specialties include gluten-free sourdough bread, pizza and pastry. When not wrangling her toddler, she enjoys reading, watching old movies and writing. Her debut novel, Girl in the Rearview Mirror, was published by William Morrow in 2019, and her second is forthcoming.