Milk Allergy: Beware of Dark Chocolate

New Food and Drug Administration study found that some dark chocolate may contain milk products.

If you or someone you know is allergic to milk, take heed: a recent study by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested 100 dark chocolate products and found that many contained milk.1 In fact, 12% of dark chocolate labelled dairy-free contained milk products, noted the agency.

“This can be a problem, since even one small bite of a product containing milk can cause a dangerous reaction in some individuals,” said researcher Binaifer Bedford, MS, an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) fellow at the FDA.

Food Allergens

There are eight major food allergens. These include:

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Peanuts
  • Shellfish (crustacean)
  • Soybeans
  • Tree nuts
  • Wheat

According to the FDA, US law requires foods containing a major food allergen to provide its name on the label. Undeclared (not listed on the label) allergens are a leading cause of food recall requests by the FDA.

From September 2009 to September 2012, about one-third of foods reported to FDA as serious health risks involved undeclared allergens. Within the candy category, there were many reports of undeclared milk in dark chocolate.

"A manufacturer may not intend to use milk in a dark chocolate product," Bedford said. But if the dark chocolate product shares equipment with, for example, a milk chocolate product, traces of milk may inadvertently wind up in the dark chocolate.

What the Study Found

The FDA tested 100 dark chocolate bars after hearing from consumers who had eaten dark chocolate and experienced harmful reactions, The selected bars were obtained from different parts of the U.S. and each bar was unique in terms of product line and/or manufacturer, noted the FDA.

“First of all, milk-allergic consumers should be aware that a high proportion of the dark chocolates we tested contained milk, even when the label failed to list milk as an ingredient,” Bedford said. Of greatest concern are chocolate samples that have no statement regarding milk on the label or have inconsistencies in the label. Several of the chocolates labeled “dairy free” were also found to contain milk.

Results included:

  • While dark chocolates labeled “dairy free or allergen-free” were the least likely to contain milk, two out of 17 of these products (12%) were found to contain milk.
  • All seven bars that declared the presence of milk on the label contained milk; however, 55 (59%) of 93 bars without any clear indication of the presence of milk also were found to contain milk.
  • Six out of the eleven chocolate products (55%) labeled “traces of milk” contained milk at detectable levels high enough to potentially cause severe reactions in some individuals.

Bottom Line

  • ALWAYS read the food label and ingredients.
  • When in doubt, call the manufacturer directly regarding your specific allergies.
  • For those with severe food allergies, be sure to always wear medical identification.

If you have a milk allergy, be aware that a high proportion of tested dark chocolates contained milk.

“And because consumers can’t be sure that a statement about milk is completely accurate, they may want to contact the manufacturer to find out how it controls for allergens such as milk during production,” said Bedford. Information about the manufacturer, packer, or distributor is required to appear on the label of packaged foods.

To see what products have been recalled due to false labelling, visit the FDA’s website and at the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) website.