I rode a camel once, but I didn’t think to suck on its nipples, too, so — like much of America — the taste of camel milk has so far eluded me. My curiosity is growing, though, as I’m seeing more and more stories about just how amazing camel milk is. If you look at Australia for instance, the BBC explains, “Camel milk production has become one of Australia’s emerging agricultural industries.” Here in America, celebrities are touting camel milk for its nutritional benefits. With this in mind, should all of us be sucking sweet milk from the teat of the humble camel?
It’s certainly true that, in Australia, the camel milk industry has recently exploded. While the farms only opened there five years ago, the amount of milk produced has grown rapidly — in 2016, says the BBC, Australian farms produced just 50,000 liters of camel milk, compared with 180,000 liters annually now.
It helps, of course, that camels are so readily available in Australia. Outside of the Middle East, in fact, Australia has more camels than anywhere else on the planet, having been imported there as far back as the 1840s. Australian camels also don’t suffer from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a sometimes-fatal disease which can be transferred to humans by having contact with camels and/or consuming raw camel milk. As Lauren Brisbane, director of the Queensland farm QCamel, tells me, “Evolution is a wonderful thing when your herd is sitting on an island a continent away from genetic abnormalities!” For this reason, Australian farms have become the most reliable source of camel milk in the world.
But why would you actually want to drink it? Brisbane explains that camel milk has been shown to help food allergies as there’s no lactose in it. It’s also been shown to help with immune-system boosting, as, “camel milk contains nutrients very similar to colostrum,” explains Walid Abdul-Wahab, founder of the California camel farm Desert Farms. Colostrum, for those who haven’t sat through a lactation class, is a special kind of breast milk that a mother supplies in the first couple of days of breastfeeding. As the American Pregnancy Association explains, “The first food your breasts make is colostrum — a sticky, yellow fluid that contains everything your baby needs to transition to life outside your body.” It gives the baby’s stomach a tough lining to protect it from illness, acts as a laxative for the baby’s first poop, prevents a baby from becoming jaundiced and gives nutrients to the baby’s brain, eyes and heart. In other words, colostrum is great and camel milk isn’t all that different from it, which is why it can help with people who are diabetic or immuno-deficient.
It’s not just camel farmers saying this, either. “There are certainly studies that show camel milk can be used to improve insulin sensitivity and have some immune-protective and anti-inflammatory properties in some people,” says nutritionist Lauren Panoff. She does caution, however, that the claim that camel milk is helpful for those with autism is anecdotal. “This doesn’t mean the claims aren’t true, it’s just that much research hasn’t been done yet,” Panoff explains.
Nutritionally, Panoff adds, “One cup of camel milk will provide around 100 calories, 6 grams of protein, 6 grams of total fat and 10 grams of carbs. It also contains a decent amount of B vitamins, calcium and vitamin C.” Compared to cow’s milk, she says, that means, “Camel milk has less saturated fat, more unsaturated fat and higher amounts of potassium, calcium, iron, B vitamins and vitamin C than cow’s milk.” It does, however, taste pretty similar to cow’s milk. While a bit sweeter and saltier, Abdul-Wahab explains that the difference is slight, and that he’s even conducted blind taste tests where people couldn’t tell the difference.
As far as drawbacks go, Panoff says there isn’t much to worry about, especially if the milk is pasteurized (which it often is — at Desert Farms, for example, Abdul-Wahab says all of his milk is pasteurized). If unpasteurized, you risk getting sick in the same way you could if you drank unpasteurized cow’s milk. Additionally, Panoff cautions, “Camel milk is a source of saturated fat and cholesterol, which you may want to limit or avoid in your diet. Decades of sound research has shown that consuming a lot of these substances can increase your risk for chronic diseases.”
Given the numerous upsides and limited downsides, then, should we all be switching out our regular milk options for the dromedary kind? Well, if you’re some uber-rich celebrity who’s gushing over camel milk, yeah, sure, go for it. As for us poor folk, we probably can’t afford to drink camel’s milk all the time, much less pour it over your cereal. If you look at Desert Farm’s prices, for instance, a 16-ounce bottle of camel milk will cost you $18 (compare that to $3.49 for a gallon of the cow stuff) and a case of six will run you over $100. In Australia, despite there being way more camels, Brisbane explains, “the price difference will always be prohibitive.”
So why the heck is it so costly? Well, for one thing, in many cases it’s imported, but even if it isn’t, there are just way more cows out there to milk. Since the cattle industry is pretty firmly cemented both here and in Australia, there’s no real hope in trying to displace cow’s milk in people’s diets — both Brisbane and Abdul-Wahab explain that they don’t even have that as a goal, ever.
It’s also way harder to milk a camel, because — as the Wall Street Journal explained — camels just don’t like to be milked. While farmers have similar accessibility to a cow’s udders, a camel cannot be milked without the calf milking as well, simply due to a lack of domestication. And despite the fact that camel-milking has been done for centuries in the Middle East, selective breeding hasn’t, which means that camels haven’t really adapted much to humans milking them. They also have irregular udder sizes, making machine-milking difficult.
Basically, until we have centuries of selective breeding in camels, it seems like camel milk will remain super pricey. As such, you’ll never see it marketed as a full-on replacement, but rather it’ll be sold to those who can’t stomach the lactose in cow milk yet still want a taste of milk once in a while. Thanks to the immune system benefits, Abdul-Wahab also says that many of his customers use it as an immune-boosting shot that they take a couple of times a week, like wheat grass shots. He adds that some bodybuilders even use it as a substitute for colostrum, which is even more pricey than camel milk.
In other words, unless you’ve got money to burn; you’re a baby; you’re a bodybuilder who needs some sweet colostrum; you’re immunodeficient and a doctor recommends it; or you’re lactose-intolerant yet still craving dairy, you’re probably not in the market for camel milk, which is just fine with the camel farmers (and probably the camels, too).