Monday, November 17, 2014

A Near Disaster: When Non-Dairy Doesn't Mean Non-Dairy

I love Meijer.  I feel like I need to start by saying that, before I get down to the meat of this post.

After living in California and Florida and now in Michigan and having driven back and forth across the country several times during those moves, we've gotten to test out quite a few different grocery chains and Meijer is my favorite.  After all, what other store has Sandy the horse (along with just about every other thing that we could possibly want or need), who the kids can ride for a penny.

Sandy makes Meijer a favorite for two out of the three kids that are old enough to sit up in our family (I've convinced Mae to pet Sandy, but she refuses to go for a ride):

I had to start with that before I go on to make my next point.

I'm writing this post because when I was starting out as a parent of with kids with newly diagnosed food allergies I had no idea how tricky identifying allergens could be... and our trip to Meijer this week, where I made a major error by trusting a misleading label, is a perfect example of how mistakes can happen.

If you haven't been to the blog before. or haven't been around long enough to know the whole allergy story, we have three (and it looks like now four) kids with food allergies.  One is allergic to dairy.  I carry an epi-pen and Benadryl with me everywhere for that little guy.  One is allergic to wheat.  And one can't have wheat or dairy.

Our newest little guy, who is five weeks old today, is miserable for days if I eat dairy, so it looks like he's set to follow in his big brother's footsteps.

As you can probably guess, I spend a lot of time reading food labels.  And when I go shopping I often have a six year old who follows me around and says "Does that have wheat in it?  Are you sure?" Every single time I pick something up off the shelf, because she's old enough to understand how sick wheat makes her and she's hyper vigilant about every single thing that passes her lips because she doesn't want to feel like that ever again.

Earlier in the week when I was shopping I was in a hurry.  Paul had all three kids in one of those nifty shopping carts with enough seats for three kids and my goal was to make it through the store before anyone started screaming.  I had James strapped to my chest and we were making our way through the store as fast as we could, when I spotted this:

I'll admit I thought "Hmmmm... I wonder what's in that?  Petroleum by-product perhaps?"  and then "I wonder if it tastes like the real thing?" and finally "It'll be a special treat!  I mean there are so many things that we can't have..."

With Thanksgiving coming we could even have it on the pumpkin pie!

That night I tried it on our dairy free ice cream.  It didn't really taste like whip cream at all.  I wouldn't buy it again based on flavor (but let's face it, few dairy free things really taste like their dairy counterparts.  They might not be bad... but they seldom taste like the real thing.).  But I ate it, because it was on top of my ice cream, and went on with my night.

In the early morning hours, James was miserable.  He spent the next day looking at me like this (when he wasn't crying and throwing up):

I didn't think much of it.  He's been fussy for weeks.  Maybe the dairy wasn't totally out of my system yet.  It was a possibility.  And within a couple of days he was feeling much, much better.

A few days later I made gluten free dairy free waffles for the kids.  I had blueberries in the refrigerator... and the thought of whipped cream topped blueberry covered waffles sounded really, really delicious.  I went to the refrigerator and grabbed the "non-dairy dessert topping" and was about to add it to the waffles when I thought of Sadie saying "does that have wheat in it" every time I pick something up in the grocery store.

The bottle said dairy free but was it gluten free?  I couldn't imagine whipped cream having gluten but still, it was best to check.  I didn't want the girls to get sick.

I turned to bottle over in my hand and was shocked by what I saw:

Contains Milk.  I turned the bottle over and read the words again.  "Non-Dairy."  I flipped it back over and read the allergen disclaimer again.  "Contains: Milk."

Below it an explanation was provided.  "Sodium Caseinate is not a source of lactose."


That means it's okay for people who are lactose intolerant.  People who are lactose intolerant don't have enough of the lactase enzyme to break lactose down into simpler sugars.  People who can't tolerate lactose might have stomach cramps, nausea and diarrhea if they have something (like milk) that has lactose in it).  Lactose intolerance isn't life threatening.  It isn't an allergic reaction.  For kids that are allergic to milk proteins (Patch) or who have a casein sensitivity (Mae) lactose isn't the problem.  Here's a more complete explanation:
"Milk allergy should not be confused with lactose intolerance. A food allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to a specific food protein. When the food protein is ingested, in can trigger an allergic reaction that may include a range of symptoms from mild symptoms (rashes, hives, itching, swelling, etc.) to severe symptoms (trouble breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness, etc.). A food allergy can be potentially fatal."  Source 
Sodium Caseinate is casein.  It's the thing that I have spent the last year avoiding at all costs for Mae.  The idea of it in her system makes me feel like hyperventilating.

I had taken Non-Dairy to mean that the product didn't contain Dairy not that it didn't contain lactose.  A much more accurate (and less dangerous) label would have been to label it lactose free like all those other products that contain dairy but don't contain lactose for people who are lactose intolerant.
I'm taking this as an important reminder.  Labels aren't always accurate.  As a parent of a kid with food allergies I have to be vigilant and look past the front label and then hope that I catch everything on the back label so that I don't end up with a sick kid, or worse yet, end up needing that epi-pen (and frighteningly, there are even worse case scenarios because allergies can be fatal).

And I hope that Meijer takes steps to change the label to make it less confusing.  With that big "Non-Dairy" label on the front of the product there are people out there who are bound to think that it's actually free of dairy... and with a serious food allergy making that mistake could be fatal.


  1. Thanks for the warning Cam. I'm glad you caught that before you give it to Mae. This was what my mom bought thinking I could have it for Thanksgiving. Looks like I am back to making whip cream from coconut milk.

    There are ways to make whip cream from non diary milks like coconut, and almond, it just doesn't come in the nice can.

  2. My uncle was allergic to casein. He could have butter and that was it! He used to eat his cereal with orange juice! He did make a good age (93) but really suffered from osteoporosis; so some kind of calcium source or checks to see if one is absorbing it) are essential!

  3. It's the same thing with cool whip and "non-dairy" coffee creamers. Chemical cocktails that still don't manage to avoid including the casein. Sorry you had to go through that. I think I've seen vegan varieties of whipped cream before, and that should, theoretically, not include casein.

  4. Wow! I'm SO glad you looked before the kids ate it. Sounds like it would have been a hellish time for a few days, just for giving them a "treat."

    For me, I totally ignore the fancy front of the package label, and go right to the ingredients. I know...who has time for that? Standing in the aisle reading the fine print on the back with unpronounceable chemical names that do who knows what (maybe nothing) in our bodies. But I do it especially when trying something new because the words on front are the "sales words" and those are sometimes deceptive. So glad the government forces them to put ingredients on the back, especially given the allergies people have. And even with tried and true products, a glance at the back before serving to make sure they didn't change the ingredients would probably be a good thing.

    Imagine diabetics trying to find things without some form of "-ose" (sugar) in it.

    But that it says on the front "non-dairy" is the worst deception given on the back is says 'milk', well, maybe a courteous letter to the company about it might bring your issue to their attention. Or maybe just printing and sending them your post?

    And I was thinking, if Mae ever does decide to ride Sandy, you might need a purse full of pennies, because she might never want to get off!!

    God bless. ~ Bonnie

  5. Ugh! How frustrating. My kids have food allergies too, so I really sympathize.

    I looked it up, and apparently government labeling allows casein in "nondairy" products. I think that is really, really misleading.

    From the FDA website: "(d) 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."

  6. I think you should send your post to the store head-quarters, and to the address of the specific company producing the product. The management may truly be clueless and perhaps they will sit up and request better information on the label front!

    Some business people only care if they meet the letter of the law. Others care more. Sending them a letter gives the ones that care the opportunity to improve their service to their customers. If everyone did this, the companies that have caring people running them will improve and we can give them our business, those that do not improve, we can stop going and they will go away or improve too. Everyone can benefit.

    I read labels too. Shocking what I find!


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