Recently I saw an episode of Bizarre Foods hosted by Andrew Zimmer. On this episode he was drinking and touting the health benefits of camel’s milk. The more I thought about it the more questions I had. I was especially intrigued as to whether the proponents of camel’s milk had any basis for their claims. As a veterinarian I had many questions about camel milk production and whether it would even be feasible to sell this milk on a large scale basis. As I investigated my questions, these are some of my conclusions.
Camels have been used for thousands years in arid parts of the world for food, clothing, and transportation. Their importance to these cultures cannot be over emphasized. Recently interest in using camels as dairy animals has grown in countries such as the United States and Britain. This interest has been mainly due to the purported heath benefits of camel’s milk. Supporters claim that camel’s milk boosts the immune system, is easier to digest than goat’s or cow’s milk, and treats such diseases as crohn’s, diabetes, food allergies in children, and autism.
Whether these assertions are true or not has not been documented scientifically. Some studies have been conducted with encouraging results, but more work needs to be done before they can be substantiated1. Anyone can make claims, tout treatments or cures, but before you rush headlong into decisions on health or nutrition I suggest taking a step back and evaluating information with an objective eye.
There are numerous challenges with drinking camel’s milk; the major challenge is that it is illegal to sell the milk in supermarkets because there is no USDA inspection of dairy camel operations. Most or all cow’s milk sold in stores is produced on dairies that are inspected by the USDA, has been pasteurized and tested for antibiotics. There is no system currently in place for that type of oversight for camel dairies, nor will their likely to be in the foreseeable future.
Having milked cows for years, I personally know how difficult it is to keep milk clean and residue free. I was very consciences but I don’t think some milkers take their work as seriously as I did. Unfortunately you can’t rely on producers to ensure the quality and wholesomeness of milk.
While I have no issue with drinking camel’s milk I do have problems with drinking raw milk, and this is coming from someone who spent his childhood doing just that. I refer you to the recent outbreak of Escherichia coli O157 in Oregon which resulted from drinking non-pasteurized cow’s milk, for a summary of the risks.
Other challenges to camel milk production are due largely to the unique physiologic aspects of camels. For example camels produce much less milk than cows do, which makes camel’s milk considerably more expensive. Additionally, the female camel’s reproductive cycle is much longer and less reliable than cattle resulting in a less consistent milk supply, complicating dependable, widespread production and distribution.
As you can see the situation is much more complicated than Mr. Zimmer described on his program. Hopefully more research into the purported benefits of camel’s milk will shed more light on current health assertions, and an infrastructure can be established to ensure a safe supply to camel’s milk for potential consumers. Even so, given the distinctive physiological challenges camels present we may never see this unique product sold on a wide scale basis.
1. Camel Milk for Food Allergies in Children Immunology and Allergies Vol. 7 December 2005 Yosef Shabo MD, Reuben Barzel MD, Mark Margoulis MD and Reuven Yagil DVM.