Is camel milk as healthy as people claim it to be?
I once interviewed a Dutch woman (adopted by Al Jenaibah Bedouin tribe in Oman) who, in an attempt to keep recurring breast cancer at bay, drank her camel’s warm morning pee mixed with its milk for 40 days. She also told me of a physically fit, 119-year-old Syrian man she once met, who put the secret of his longevity down to the consumption of dates and camel’s milk. There is no shortage of stories when it comes to the supposed miraculous properties of what has been dubbed ‘liquid gold’. But is any of it true?
‘In many Bedouin communities, camel’s milk is regarded as the treatment for ailments ranging from constipation to tuberculosis,’ says Dr Michael Loubser, paediatrician at Infinity Health Clinic. In fact, proponents of this desert mammal’s milk tout it as an aid for anything from diabetes to autism. He adds, however, that ‘aside from a couple of studies showing there may be a role for camel milk in people suffering from diabetes, there are as yet no properly controlled clinical trials to substantiate these claims.’
Now, though, there signs that the health benefits of camel’s milk are being considered more seriously. Hard on the hooves of cow’s milk, it’s going mainstream. UAE-based Emirates Industries for Camel Milk & Products has recently been cleared by EU health regulators, enabling it to become the largest exporter of its Camelicious-branded products to Europe, with a focus on the ‘health food’ market. Already selling the products here, including flavoured milks aimed at kids (spot the bug-eyed cartoon camel), its nutritional claims about camel’s milk compared to cow’s milk are certainly impressive: higher calcium, lower fat and five times more Vitamin C.We asked two health experts, Dr Loubser and Dr Parviz Rashvand, a naturopathic doctor at Synergy Integrated Medical Centre, to clarify the claims:
Claim 1: Higher in vitamins and minerals to help boost the immune system
‘Camel’s milk is rich in vitamin B and has 10 times more iron than cow’s milk and these are all important elements for growth,’ says Dr Parviz. ‘It also contains antibodies that may help fight disease and provide immunity.’ However, the claims should be put into context, says Dr Loubser. ‘Milk is not an important source of vitamin C in the context of a balanced diet, with much of the vitamin C destroyed by the pasteurisation process.’ He continues, ‘Camel’s milk could offer some theoretical protection against infection, due to its richness in a protein called lactoferrin, which binds to iron, thereby depriving bacteria of an essential nutrient.’ However, he emphasises that no properly conducted study has yet shown this.
Claim 2: It’s close in composition to human milk, so more beneficial for babies and infants
‘Camel’s milk is similar to human milk in some ways, but dissimilar in others. It has a higher protein content, which is not necessarily a good thing in very young children, while its lower fat content isn’t suitable for infants, who require high-fat diets to facilitate brain growth,’ says Dr Loubser. ‘In my opinion, there is no role for camel milk in infant nutrition. Human breast milk is definitely the best source of nutrition for infants.’
Claim 3: It’s ideal for pregnancy as it’s low in fat and calcium-rich
‘Its richness in phosphorus and calcium makes it excellent for pregnancy,’ says Dr Parviz. While camel’s milk is certainly lower in fat than full-fat cow’s milk, Dr Loubser explains that it is the proportion of fat that is unsaturated in camel’s milk that makes it a healthier option. Such properties can make the milk beneficial both to expectant mothers and overweight children.
Claim 4: There are no known allergies to camel milk, as opposed to common infant allergies to cow milk
‘Due to the camel’s diet, its milk is less likely to cause health problems or trigger allergies,’ says Dr Parviz. ‘The problem with cow’s milk today is that it’s almost not real any more. The majority of cow milk products in supermarkets are supplied by mass-production facilities, which use mainly corn and bone powders to feed cattle, as well as antibiotics and stimulating hormones, all of which can trigger allergies.’ Dr Loubser agrees that it’s possible for a child allergic to cow’s milk to drink camel’s milk without a reaction.
Claim 5: It has positive effects on diabetes sufferers
While protein in cow’s milk can provoke auto-immune conditions like Diabetes Type 1, Dr Parviz explains that the high concentration of an insulin-like protein in camel’s milk means that its regular consumption could contribute to maintaining long-term blood sugar control in Diabetes Type 1 sufferers.
250ml (cup) of camel milk = • Protein equivalent to one large egg • Calcium equivalent to seven medium sardines (with bones) • Potassium equivalent to nearly one whole banana