What Exactly Is a “Milk Derivative”?

I’m not usually a big fan of increasing legal restrictions on how companies label their products. But there are some frustrating misuses of the terms “non-dairy” and “dairy-free” out there today. For example, when you buy a “non-dairy” product and then find it contains “a milk derivative.”

What exactly are “milk derivatives”? And what are they doing in “non-dairy” products? In this post, I’ll explain “milk derivatives” and whether they can be eaten by vegans, people with milk allergies, and people with lactose intolerance.

The Meaning of “Milk Derivative”

The term “milk derivative” could refer to any ingredient derived from milk. However, it usually refers to an ingredient that is an altered form of a milk ingredient.

In practice, “milk derivative” usually refers to sodium caseinate. Sodium caseinate is made from the milk protein casein. By reacting casein with sodium hydroxide, water-soluble “sodium caseinate” is created.

Creating water-soluble “caseinate” allows the milk protein casein to be dissolved in liquids, such as in coffee creamers.

Controversially, sodium caseinate can be included in products that are labeled “Non-Dairy,” such as coffee creamer and whipped cream. However, this requires the ingredient to be labeled with “From Milk” or “A Milk Derivative”:

“When foods characterized on the label as ‘nondairy’ contain a caseinate ingredient, the caseinate ingredient shall be followed by a parenthetical statement identifying its source. For example, if the manufacturer uses the term ‘nondairy’ on a creamer that contains sodium caseinate, it shall include a parenthetical term such as ‘a milk derivative’ after the listing of sodium caseinate in the ingredient list.” (source)

Surprisingly, the FDA does not enforce any definition for the term “non-dairy.” This has to do with the original purpose of the term. Read more about that in my blog post all about sodium caseinate.

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Does Milk Derivative Contain Lactose?

The FDA says* sodium caseinate (milk derivative) “may contain low levels of lactose” (*link removed). Accordingly, “milk derivative” should be avoided by individuals who are highly sensitive to lactose.

That said, Coffee Mate labels their creamer as “lactose free” despite it containing a milk derivative. So you may be fine consuming milk derivatives in a product like theirs.

Can People With a Milk Allergy Eat “Milk Derivative”?

People with milk allergy should not consume milk derivative. Milk proteins such as casein and whey can cause allergic reactions, even in altered forms like sodium caseinate. This is why the FDA requires milk-derived ingredients to be labeled as such in “non-dairy” products.

Can Vegans Eat “Milk Derivative”?

is sodium caseinate vegan?

Most vegans would not eat a “milk derivative.” Ethical vegans avoid milk ingredients due to animal rights, animal cruelty, and environmental sustainability issues, which apply equally to highly altered “milk derivatives” as to any other dairy ingredient.

That said, some people pursue a “vegan diet” solely for health reasons. Those “health vegans” may be okay with eating more “minor” animal ingredients like milk derivatives.

There are also ethical vegans who just take a more relaxed approach to the more “minor” animal by-product ingredients. I wrote more about this issue in my post “Is Sodium Caseinate Vegan? Does It Contain Dairy?

Personally, as a vegan of 14 years, I do not eat any milk derivative if it is clearly labeled as such.

[Related Post: “What Does ‘May Contain Milk’ Mean?”]

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What Is the Milk Derivative in Coffee Mate?

The milk derivative in Coffee Mate is sodium caseinate. It is a water-soluble version of the milk protein casein, created by reacting casein with sodium hydroxide.

As explained on the Coffee Mate website, “While Coffee mate liquid creamers are dairy free and lactose free, they do contain sodium caseinate/micellar casein, which is a milk derivative.”

This is a pretty frustrating wording. Many people, including myself, believe it is highly misleading to use the term “dairy free” this way. In fact, the FDA has expressed this about the term “dairy-free”:

“We have interpreted the term ‘dairy-free’ as meaning the complete absence of all dairy ingredients including lactose, etc. The term ‘nondairy’ refers to products, such as nondairy whipped topping and nondairy creamers, that may contain a caseinate milk derivative.” (source)

So, Coffee Mate is going against the FDA’s interpretation of these terms. However, the terms are not legally enforced.

Are “Dairy Free,” “Non-Dairy,” and “Lactose Free” the Same?

All three of these terms have different general meanings. However, none of them have precise, FDA-enforced legal definitions. The FDA just requires companies to be generally truthful and not wildly misleading.

So the following are general guidelines, not legally binding definitions:

  • Lactose Free products do not contain lactose—but they are usually made from real milk.
  • Dairy-Free products generally do not contain any real dairy—they are made from plants instead.
  • Non-Dairy products are not primarily made from milk—however, they may still include a small amount of real dairy (such as caseinates).

So, between “non-dairy” and “dairy free,” the stricter one is typically “dairy free.” That said, this is not enforced—and as the Coffee Mate example above shows, even “dairy free” products can legally still include milk derivatives.

I would just personally recommend always checking the ingredients list. Again, I discussed this issue a bit more in my post about sodium caseinate.

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