Cow’s Milk Alternatives May Be Healthier, Easier to Digest

He made his first diagnosis at age seven. Daily Health News contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, told his parents, “No more milk.” Sure enough, that spelled the end of his trouble with fatigue, runny nose and other allergy symptoms, not to mention the beginning of a lifelong habit of challenging accepted health-care wisdom.

Dr. Rubman is still not a milk drinker, but he agreed to share his thoughts about the slew of “new” milks on the shelves of health-food stores and even mainstream supermarkets. For a variety of reasons, milk from other animals — including goats and sheep — might be more beneficial to your health than cow’s milk. And, believe it or not, the FDA recently removed the legal barriers that have thus far prevented milk from camels, llamas, reindeer, moose and donkeys from being sold in the US — though I’d be very surprised if those show up in many retail stores anytime soon, since distributors must prove that those milks are processed according to the same standards that are required for cow’s milk.

Why Drink Milk?

Most of us grew up hearing that we should drink lots and lots of milk — three glasses a day — to help us grow big and strong. The health claims are not without merit. Cow’s milk, and indeed all mammalian milks, naturally contain a mixture of healthful compounds, including protein, fat, calcium and other minerals and vitamins. However, each species produces the specific blend of nutrients best-suited for its own offspring, Dr. Rubman explains — calves grow best with cow’s milk, lambs with sheep milk and so on. It’s therefore no surprise that for humans, milk from an animal — any animal — is more allergenic and difficult to digest than what nature intended, which is, of course, milk from our own mothers.

Practically everyone knows that some people have trouble digesting milk, but not so many people realize that there are actually two different reasons why that’s so. Some people have sensitive or allergic reactions to one or more proteins found in one or more types of milk, while others cannot tolerate the sugar (called lactose) that is found in all mammalian milk. Why? With age, some people lose the natural ability to produce lactase, the digestive enzyme that breaks down lactose. Symptoms of both problems are the same — intestinal gas, diarrhea, runny nose, nasal congestion, asthma, wheezing, vomiting and skin rash.

Cow’s Milk — The Worst!

Economics are a key reason why cow’s milk became so popular — cows produce more milk than goats and other mammals, and at a lower cost.

However, with high levels of alpha-S1 casein protein (a major allergen), lactose and large fat globules, cow’s milk happens to pose the greatest challenge of all milks to humans. Dr. Rubman said that some who can’t tolerate cow’s milk do fine with milk from another animal, however.

Next Best: Goat’s Milk

You may be surprised to hear that worldwide, more people drink goat’s milk than cow’s milk, and lately I’ve noticed cartons of it in the dairy section of my local supermarket. Easier for many people to digest, goat’s milk contains a bit less lactose and higher amounts of protein and fat and in forms that are more digestible than cow’s milk.

Milk from goats contains more of other nutrients than cow’s milk as well. For example, it has 13% more calcium and greater amounts of healthful short- and medium-chain fatty acids. Proponents prefer its tangy flavor and like that it is usually produced on small farms, free of antibiotics and growth hormone. (To verify, look at the label for certification that the production method is antibiotic and/or growth-hormone free.) Expect to pay more for milk from goats — one popular brand, Meyenberg, is double the price of cow’s milk… but enthusiasts say they don’t mind, since they like the taste and the increased nutrition. People who like and easily tolerate goat milk will likely also find that goat cheeses, yogurts and ice creams go down easily.

Sheep and Buffalo Milk: Up Next?

If you can find them in your health-food store, sheep and buffalo milks are a tasty — but considerably more expensive — alternative. Both resemble cow’s milk in taste but have a thicker, creamier texture. Like goat’s milk, milk from ewes has more short- and medium-chain fatty acids than cow’s milk and smaller fat globules, which makes it healthier and easier to digest for humans. It also packs more calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and vitamins A, B (especially B-6 and B-12) and E. Buffalo milk has more calcium than milk from cows, goats or sheep… contains more butterfat and protein than cow’s milk… and is a rich source of phosphorus, vitamin A and iron.

On the other hand, both sheep and buffalo milk have more lactose than cow’s milk, so avoid these (and other products made from them) if you are lactose-intolerant. Common sheep milk products include yogurt, ice cream and cheeses (Feta from Greece, Roquefort from France, Pecorino Romano from Italy, Manchego from Spain, etc.). As for the buffalo, in addition to the milk you can find yogurt, ice cream and cheeses including, of course, the gourmet buffalo mozzarella.

Camel Milk

Camel milk, popular in the Middle East and Africa, won final FDA approval for sale in the US in 2012, thanks to the efforts of camel milk enthusiast and holistic health practitioner Millie Hinkle, who fell in love with camel milk on a trip to the United Arab Emirates and made it her mission to market it here in the US.

Though camel milk has gotten over the FDA-approval hump, marketers may face a few other challenges—one is its somewhat salty taste…and the other is that camels are pretty uncooperative about being milked. The milk can boast some major nutritional advantages over cow’s milk, however. It has less lactose (as much as half)…three times as much vitamin C…and slightly higher levels of iron, unsaturated fatty acids and B vitamins. Camel milk aficionados also insist that their beverage of choice is an aphrodisiac. Its popularity is growing with numerous online retailers selling it in a variety of forms, including dried. Note: Make sure to choose pasteurized camel milk. A lot of what’s sold in stores, from dairies and online—including dried forms—is raw. But any raw animal milk, including camel milk, carries a risk for pathogenic bacteria that can cause illness.