Camel milk has a great taste. But that's not why Americans are beginning to drink it.
People with diabetes are drinking it to help us reduce our blood sugar and to reduce the amount of insulin we have to take. Camel milk is one of those rare functional foods that helps us manage our diabetes better.
Camel milk recently became available in the United States. Two years ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of camel milk here. This year Desert Farms in Santa Monica, California, became the first camel milk wholesaler in the U.S. It is now on the shelves of natural food stores in California, including 40 Whole Foods Markets in the northern part of that state. By the end of this month Whole Foods will have it in its frozen food cases at 32 stores in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Utah.
Whole Foods only carries pasteurized camel milk, but since raw camel's milk is legal in California, another retailer in that state, Lassen's, sells both raw and pasteurized camel milk in its 10 stores. Desert Farms will also ship it to your door.
I have drunk both raw and pasteurized camel milk from Desert Farms. It tastes to me essentially the same as 2 percent milk from cows, which has a similar fat content. Camel milk, whether raw or pasteurized, has 4.5 grams of total fat per 8 ounces, while 2 percent cow's milk has 5 grams in the same serving size.
Camels are rare in the United States, which is the main reason why camel milk is considerably more expensive than cow's milk. There are 18,000 cows for every camel in the United States, the Desert Farms website says.
We have only 3,000 to 5,000 camels here, according to two different estimates. And many of them work in circuses or live in zoos. Almost one-third of the estimated 19,000,000 camels in the world live in Somalia, where camel milk is readily available, along with Sudan, Kenya, India, and Saudi Arabia. When the U.S. Agency for International Development sent me to Somalia in 1963, I didn't drink any camel milk, although I saw thousands of camels herded by Somali nomads and brought back an authentic pair of wooden camel bells.
Between Hargeisa and Arabsyio, Somalia, December 1963
The founder of Desert Farms, Walid Abdul-Wahab, came to this country from his native Saudi Arabia. But most of the camel ranchers he works with are Amish and Mennonite people in the Midwest.
"The average herd is about six camels," Walid told me. "And most of the work is still done by hand."
He is working to bring down the cost of camel milk. "We are buying more camels and breeding them," he told me.
Walid said that a lot of his customers are drinking camel milk to help them manage their diabetes. "One of the usual comments that we hear from our customers is that after drinking camel milk for a week, it drops their blood sugar and decreases the amount of insulin they have to inject."
Walid doesn't claim that camel milk is a medicine, a supplement, or a functional food. But he did go on to mention to me that I could find a growing number of medical studies on camel milk in the PubMed database. Today I found 320 studies there, including 18 when I limited the search to "camel milk diabetes."
Some of the most interesting research reports studied the insulin in camel milk. French scientists reported two decades ago that "relatively large concentrations [of insulin] are present in the [camel] milk." While some insulin is also found in the milk of other animals, including cows, a radioimmunoassay of camel milk "has revealed high concentration of insulin., i.e. 52 units/l," according to a study in India.
Insulin is, of course, a protein, which is normally destroyed in the stomach. But an Israeli report on "Insulin in Milk - A Comparative Study," found that camel milk is unique in that it does not react to the acid in the stomach so it passes into the intestines ready for absorption. This study concludes that "there is a scientific justification for drinking camel milk by certain diabetic patients."
Note, however, that some of these studies probably used raw camel milk in their tests. Pasteurization can denature the insulin in camel milk, but it depends on "the length of time and amount of heat that is applied." The Desert Farms camel milk is "gently pasteurized." Walid tells me that when he pasteurizes the camel milk he sells, it is for 30 minutes at 145 °F.
Camel milk also has an anti-inflammatory effect, according to a Saudi study. That study went on to note a "significantly lower fasting glucose level."
Yet another study, this one by researchers in Egypt, concluded that "daily ingestion of camel milk can aid metabolic control in young type 1 diabetics, at least in part by boosting endogenous insulin secretion." This was a 16-randomized week of 54 young people (average age 20) with type 1 diabetes. Each day they got 500 mL of camel milk, which is about 2 cups.
The most impressive studies include several led by Rajendra Agrawal, senior professor, Department of Medicine, Diabetes Care and Researrch Centre, Sardar Patel Medical College in Bikaner, Rajasthan, India. This college is in the middle of the Thar desert, which has lots of camels.
One of seven published studies of camel milk led by Professor Agrawal compared camel and cow's milk in people with type 2 diabetes as well as non-diabetics. This study of 28 men concluded that in people with type 2 diabetes camel milk reduces fasting blood sugar, post-prandial glucose, and A1C levels. In five months of the study the average A1C level went down from 8.4 to 7.3, while it went up among those taking cow's milk. "It shows hypoglycemic effect of camel milk reducing insulin resistance."
Milk isn't a low-carbohydrate food. Two cups of cow's milk has 23 grams of carbohydrate, and the same amount of camel milk has 22 grams. I don't drink cow's milk because this amount is close to half of the carbs that I consume each day. But I certainly would add whatever amount of camel milk to my diet that I needed if I weren't otherwise able to keep my diabetes in check.