Is there dairy in Italian dressing?

Italian dressing is a popular salad dressing that generally contains a combination of oil, vinegar, and seasonings. While traditional Italian dressing recipes don’t contain dairy ingredients, some commercial brands of bottled Italian dressing do include dairy such as cheese, milk, cream, or whey.

Quick Answer

Traditional Italian dressing does not contain dairy ingredients. However, some commercial brands of bottled Italian dressing include dairy products such as cheese, milk, cream, or whey.

Ingredients in Traditional Italian Dressing

A traditional Italian dressing consists of oil, vinegar, and seasonings. Common ingredients include:

  • Olive oil or vegetable oil
  • Wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
  • Lemon juice
  • Garlic, minced or crushed
  • Dried oregano
  • Dried basil
  • Salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • Dried parsley
  • Onion powder
  • Sugar or honey

As you can see from the typical ingredients list, there are no dairy products included in a traditional oil and vinegar Italian dressing. The dairy-free ingredients allow the flavors of the oil, vinegar, herbs, and spices to shine.

Why Some Store-Bought Italian Dressings Contain Dairy

While homemade and traditional Italian vinaigrette doesn’t call for any dairy, many mass-produced commercial Italian dressings include ingredients like:

  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Cream
  • Buttermilk
  • Whey

Dairy is added to some store-bought dressings to create a creamy texture and mouthfeel. The dairy fats can also help mellow the acidity of the vinegar. This makes the dressing thicker and easier to pour and stick to salad greens.

Some specific dairy ingredients found in popular bottled Italian dressings include:

  • Kraft Zesty Italian: Whey, blue cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes)
  • Wishbone Italian Dressing: Whey (milk), parmesan cheese (part-skim milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes)
  • Ken’s Steak House Italian Dressing: Aged parmesan cheese (pasteurized part-skim milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes)
  • Newman’s Own Italian Dressing: Romano cheese (pasteurized sheep’s milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes), parmesan cheese (pasteurized part-skim milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes)

Checking Ingredients Lists for Dairy

To determine if a bottled Italian dressing contains dairy, simply read the ingredients label closely. Below are some telltale dairy ingredient terms to look for:

  • Milk
  • Cream
  • Buttermilk
  • Whey
  • Cheese (parmesan, romano, blue, etc.)
  • Casein
  • Sodium caseinate
  • Milk protein
  • Milk solids
  • Milk powder
  • Butter
  • Ghee
  • Yogurt

If the ingredients list contains any of those dairy-based items, then the Italian dressing is not vegan or dairy-free. Stick to brands without milk, cheese, whey, or cream if you need to avoid dairy.

Dairy-Free Italian Dressing Options

If you require a dairy-free Italian dressing, look for ones with these qualities:

  • No mention of cheese, milk, cream, or whey in the ingredients
  • Vegan or dairy-free labeled
  • Olive oil and vinegar based

Some recommended dairy-free, vegan Italian dressings include:

Brand Ingredients
Brianna’s Homestyle Italian Dressing Water, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, sea salt, basil, oregano, onion, black pepper
Annie’s Naturals Goddess Dressing Extra virgin olive oil, cider vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, brown rice syrup, water, blackstrap molasses, sea salt, mustard flour, garlic
Primal Kitchen Italian Dressing Avocado oil, vinegar, lemon juice, oregano, basil, garlic, onion, black pepper
Simple Girl Italian Dressing Olive oil, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, garlic, black pepper, onion powder, oregano, basil

Making your own dairy-free Italian dressing at home is easy, too. Just mix 2/3 cup olive oil, 1/3 cup red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar, minced garlic, dried oregano and basil, salt, and pepper.

Non-Dairy Substitutes in Dressings

For commercial brands of Italian dressing that contain dairy, manufacturers sometimes create non-dairy substitutes. Here are some common substitutions found in “dairy-free” Italian dressings:

  • Soy milk: Replaces cow’s milk
  • Almond milk: Replaces cow’s milk
  • Coconut milk: Replaces cream
  • Nutritional yeast: Replaces parmesan cheese flavor
  • Vegan cheese: Made from nuts, soy, etc. Replaces regular cheese
  • Tofu: Replaces sour cream or whipped cream texture

However, keep in mind that some people with dairy allergies may also react to the protein in soy. Always read labels carefully if you have food sensitivities.

Reasons to Avoid Dairy in Dressings

Here are some reasons why you may want to avoid dairy-based Italian dressings:

  • Dairy allergies or sensitivities
  • Vegan or plant-based diet
  • Paleo or primal diet
  • Weight loss goals
  • Inflammation concerns

Dairy ingredients like milk, cheese, and cream are common allergens. Those with lactose intolerance can also have difficulty digesting the lactose sugar in dairy. Vegan diets avoid animal products, while paleo diets avoid dairy because humans did not consume it throughout much of our hunter-gatherer history.

Additionally, some people limit dairy when trying to lose weight or reduce inflammation, as the saturated fat and calories can trigger those issues for certain individuals.

Dairy Allergies and Sensitivities

Those with dairy allergies, lactose intolerance, or sensitivities need to stay away from the milk proteins and lactose sugars found in ingredients like milk, cream, cheese, and whey. Reactions can range from mild bloating and nausea to severe anaphylaxis.

Vegan Diets

Vegans do not consume any animal products, including dairy obtained from cows or other animals. This means avoiding ingredients like casein, whey, milk solids, cheese, cream, and butter.

Paleo and Primal Diets

The paleo diet avoids dairy because back in the paleolithic era, humans did not domesticate cattle or regularly consume milk products. People following primal diets similarly avoid dairy they believe humans did not evolve to digest well.

Weight Loss Goals

Some people trying to lose weight may limit full-fat dairy products due to the high calorie, fat, and protein content. Additionally, emerging research shows dairy may stimulate insulin production and inflammation, which can inhibit weight loss in some individuals.

Inflammation Concerns

Dairy may trigger inflammation or exacerbate conditions like acne, arthritis, asthma, and autoimmune disorders in those sensitive. This is due to compounds like lactose, casein, whey, hormones, and bioactive milk peptides.

Nutrition Comparison of Dairy vs Dairy-Free Italian Dressings

Below is a nutritional comparison between a traditional homemade oil-and-vinegar Italian dressing recipe without dairy compared to a store-bought cream Italian dressing that contains dairy ingredients:

Nutrition Facts Homemade Italian Dressing
Kraft Creamy Italian Dressing
Calories 119 cal 150 cal
Total Fat 12 g 16 g
Saturated Fat 2 g 2 g
Sodium 146 mg 470 mg
Sugars 2 g 7 g
Protein 0 g 1 g
Calcium 4 mg 105 mg

As shown above, the dairy-free homemade dressing is lower in calories, sodium, and added sugars compared to the cream-based dressing. However, the store-bought cream dressing provides higher amounts of calcium thanks to the dairy ingredients.

Lactose Content in Dairy-Based Italian Dressings

One concern with dairy-containing Italian dressings is the lactose content for those with lactose sensitivity or intolerance. Hard aged cheeses like parmesan tend to be very low in lactose, while soft unripened cheeses and ingredients like cream or milk will be higher.

For example, Kraft Zesty Italian dressing contains about 1 g of lactose per serving, coming from the whey and blue cheese. Compare this to 15-17 g of lactose in 1 cup of milk.

So while Italian dressings with parmesan or romano cheese will be low lactose, those with cream, milk or whey will contain moderate amounts of the milk sugar lactose that can be problematic for some people.

Taste and Texture Differences

Will ditching the dairy ingredients negatively affect the taste and texture of your Italian dressing? Let’s compare:


Traditional homemade oil and vinegar Italian dressing gets its robust flavor from ingredients like garlic, oregano, basil, onions, and black pepper. With quality extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, the taste can be outstanding without any dairy products.

The exception is if cheese like parmesan or blue cheese is added – in which case the umami, saltiness, and creaminess impart a distinct flavor. But there are ways to mimic this with nutritional yeast and salty seasonings in dairy-free dressings when needed.


Homemade vinaigrette-style dressings will have a thin, pourable consistency without dairy. Oil and vinegar alone can only get so thick. However, adding creamy dairy ingredients like sour cream, cream cheese, or ricotta does give dressings a much fuller-bodied, thicker texture.

The closest non-dairy substitute for creamy texture would be silken tofu or avocado pureed into the dressing. But for the most part, dairy-free Italian dressings will be lower viscosity and easy pouring. Depending on your preferences, this can be a pro or con.

How to Use Dairy-Free Italian Dressing

You can drizzle and toss dairy-free Italian dressings on salads, use as marinades for meats and veggies, or incorporate into recipes:

  • Green salads: Toss with romaine, kale, spinach, arugula
  • Pasta salads: Toss with veggies, chickpeas, pasta
  • Chicken: Marinade chicken breasts or thighs
  • Vegetables: Use as marinade for roasted vegetables
  • Sandwiches: Spread on subs and hoagies for flavor

Anywhere you would normally use an oil-and-vinegar Italian dressing, you can sub in a dairy-free homemade or store-bought version. Getting creative with herbs, spices, vinegars and oils can make your own signature Italian vinaigrette at home, too.

Should You Avoid Dairy in Italian Dressing?

Whether you should avoid dairy comes down to your taste preferences and dietary needs:

  • If you tolerate dairy well, you don’t necessarily need to avoid it.
  • If you follow a vegan or paleo diet, you will want to skip dairy-laden dressings.
  • If you have dairy sensitivities or allergies, stick to dressings confirmed to be dairy-free.
  • If limiting calories or saturated fat, homemade oil-and-vinegar dressings are a good option.

Quality extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, herbs, and spices can make outstanding dairy-free Italian dressing. But if you want a thicker, richer mouthfeel, small amounts of parmesan, Romano, or blue cheese can provide character.

Ultimately it comes down to your dietary preferences and restrictions. Thankfully there are great tasting options both with and without dairy!

The Bottom Line

Traditional homemade Italian dressings use an oil and vinegar base without any dairy products. However, many mass produced bottled Italian dressings add ingredients like cheese, whey, milk or cream. To avoid dairy, choose brands without these ingredients or stick to simple oil and vinegar recipes. With the right herbs, spices, vinegars and oils, you can create flavorful Italian vinaigrettes without the dairy.

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