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Most of us grew up hearing that drinking cow’s milk would ensure healthy bones and teeth. Seen as an integral part of a good diet, advertising often featured energetic, grinning children with white moustaches. Milk would make us all grow big and strong was the message — end of story.

For many it is a product that still starts the day poured over breakfast cereal, then is perhaps a tasty accompaniment to a lunchtime sandwich — and it has always been an essential finishing touch to a cup of tea.

As for the health benefits, we have been drilled with the notion that cow’s milk is a rich source of calcium and vitamin D, giving a boost to bone health and helping to prevent osteoporosis.

However, recent years have seen hot debate about the true health value of those cartons we constantly keep stored in our fridge. Studies in reputable scientific publications such as the Journal of Nutrition and The American Journal of Epidemiology have suggested the medical facts are complicated.

For example, for years people have been told to go for skimmed over full-fat dairy milk. Even the latest dietary guidelines in the US urge people to avoid full fat, with school lunch programmes providing only low-fat milk and no whole milk at all. But large population studies that look at possible links between full-fat dairy consumption, weight and disease risk are starting to call that advice into question. Some research has suggested people who consume full-fat dairy weigh less and are even less likely to develop diabetes.

A separate issue is the fact that many people are not able to digest lactose, the sugar in milk, because they do not produce enough of an enzyme known as lactase. 

As a result, they have diarrhoea, gas and bloating after eating or drinking dairy products. The condition is usually harmless, but its symptoms can be uncomfortable.

More seriously, there is new evidence suggesting that the consumption of milk and other dairy products leads to an increased risk of prostate cancer. Conversely, dairy-free diets have been followed to slow the progress of the disease. On top of all this, a recent Swedish medical study showed that women who consumed large quantities of dairy milk daily were more likely to sustain fractures than those who drank little to no milk. Ironic for a food product touted as boosting bone health.

The alternatives

The tide does seem to be turning against cow’s milk. Americans drink 37 per cent less milk than they did in the 1970s, and in the UK dairy consumption overall has fallen by a third over the past 20 years. 

There is a booming global business for alternatives — soy milk in particular has become extremely popular. Made from the extract of soybeans, it comes in sweetened, unsweetened and flavoured varieties. Like cow’s milk, soy milk is often fortified with calcium, vitamins A and D, and riboflavin, and it has 7 to 10 grams of protein per serving. This makes it the most similar alternative to cow’s milk in terms of nutrition profile. 

It is worth noting, however, that soy is extremely high in phytoestrogens, which are plant compounds that look like oestrogen to the body. Does this mean that soy milk will disrupt your hormones? Perhaps, but studies are still highly conflicting.

Then there is almond milk, which is made from ground almonds, water, and in most cases a sweetener. It may also be fortified with vitamins and minerals. Almond milk has a creamy texture, similar to that of dairy milk and has been described as the US’ favourite plant-based milk. Almonds are naturally rich in calcium, and manufacturers additionally fortify almond milk to match the calcium and vitamin D content of dairy milk. 

On the downside, the American Academy of Paediatrics cautions that people absorb the nutrients in milk and milk products better than they do those in plant-based milks. In other words, dairy foods may offer better bioavailability of its nutrients than almond milk.

Camel the way 

Intriguingly, one milk that is now having its moment in the sun is camel milk. For centuries camel milk has been one of the staple foods for the Bedouin Arabs, and in the harsh and arid desert it not only replaces water but also provides the essential nutrients to keep people healthy. The Bedouins drink raw camel milk that is freshly milked — they believe the pasteurised version has fewer nutritional and healing qualities.

According to studies at the University of California, Irvine in the US, camels milk is rich in neurotransmitters that are essential and highly bioavailable for brain function and have been thought to help naturally alleviate symptoms of anxiety. On top of that it offers a richer source of probiotics — the good bacteria — which are vital for gut health.

Nathalie Djabrayan, Head Dietitian and Managing Partner at Djabrayan Chiropractic and Diet Centre in Beirut, is a leading voice on nutrition and works with Feeding Our Communities Partners (FOCP) in the UAE. She says camel milk is rightfully gaining popularity worldwide as a superfood.“For a start, camel’s milk is lower in calories and saturated fat than cow’s milk. 

“One glass of camel’s milk is only about 110 calories and 4.5 grams of fat, compared with 150 calories and 8 grams of fat in cow’s milk. Additionally, it has less than half the saturated fat as cow’s milk — 3 grams versus 8 grams. 

“Camel milk is also considerably higher in iron vitamin B3 and vitamin C than cow’s milk and has less lactose — those with lactose intolerance will likely be able to enjoy it without the symptoms associated with drinking cow’s milk. In fact, this milk has actually been shown to reduce lactose intolerance.”

Djabrayan points to research from King Saud University that showed that camel milk contains more than 200 different proteins, making it a potent source for boosting immunity and a good alternative for bulking protein through meat and supplements.

Meanwhile, the high iron content found in camel’s milk also makes it ideal for preventing anaemia by increasing circulation of the blood and oxygenation to the body’s organ systems. Following childbirth, injury, menstruation or a period of malnutrition, camel’s milk  can significantly help maintain health especially for those following a vegetarian diet. 

Dr Wafaa Ayesh, Director, Clinical Nutrition Department at Dubai Health Authority (DHA), agrees that camel’s milk should be taken seriously as a cow’s milk alternative. “It has also been touted as a treatment for a range of diseases from Crohn’s and hepatitis to diabetes. 

“In fact, a two-year study found that among type-1 diabetics who received 500ml of camel milk in addition to diet, exercise and insulin, there was an overall decrease in blood glucose and insulin levels compared to those patients who received only diet, exercise and insulin — while some completely eliminated the need for insulin.”

And the best thing about living in this region is that for those who want to try it, camel’s milk is readily available. 

You can find everything from camel lattes and camel chocolates to camel milk custards and cakes — not forgetting camel milk ice cream and camel kefir, a cultured, fermented milk drink. So, it could be time to get over the hump of childhood habits and join the liquid revolution.