Camels exist in many parts of the world, especially in Asia and Africa. Traditionally they have been used for work and for the production of meat, milk, hair and hide. They are particularly valuable because of their ability to be productive and remain healthy in arid areas where the grazing is poor. Camels can survive for up to 20 days without water. Although the camel has the potential to make a major contribution to the supply of meat and milk in locations subject to drought little research has been done to determine how this can be done effectively and efficiently (1).
The average daily yield of milk is usually between 5 and 10 kg per day but in Pakistan with good feeding, yields of up to 35 kg per day have been recorded. The milk is an important source of nutrients for humans. However the composition varies depending on the type of diet and the availability of water. The water content can be as low as 84% when there is a shortage but over 90% when there are ample supplies.
Currently various attempts are being made to exploit the potential of camels as a source of food for the human population. There are numerous claims that the milk of camels has specific health benefits when consumed by humans. According to the Camel Milk Association
- It is often easily digested by lactose-intolerant individuals
- It is rich in healthy vitamins and minerals, especially B vitamins, vitamin C and iron
- The lactoferrin in camel milk has antibacterial, antiviral and anti-tumor properties
- It contains disease-fighting immunoglobulins which are small in size, allowing penetration of antigens and boosting the effectiveness of the immune system
- It is a rich source of insulin. Containing approximately 52 units of insulin in each liter of camel milk, making it a great treatment option for Type 1 or Type 2 diabetics as well as Gestational Diabetes
- It improves the quality of life for people with autoimmune disorders. Helping the immune system respond properly and no longer attacking a person’s own body tissues
- Camel milk is a good source of protein and referred to as whole food. It has enough nutrients to sustain life and is often given to babies suffering from malnutrition (2).
These points have got picked up by many websites with the result that people are trying to access camel milk in the hope that it will help them overcome specific health problems. For example Julie Matthews who has the Nourishinghope website states that camel milk:
- “….may seem obscure, but the more I research and read personal anecdotes from parents and clinicians the world over, the more amazing I think it may actually be at helping recover kids with autism – and many others with gut issues, immune system challenges, nutrient deficiencies, and more!”
On the other hand the more hard-nosed Scienceblogs website concludes that:
“…the evidence presented consists of testimonials, uncontrolled tiny pilot studies, and a lot of hand-waving. Moreover, whenever anyone makes claims that something like camel milk can treat a wide variety of diseases and disorders that do not share a common pathophysiology (example: acupuncture), it’s best to be very, very skeptical. Camel’s milk probably isn’t harmful. After all, people have been drinking it for millennia. However, the claims of miraculous medicinal properties are no different than most other claims for miraculous medicinal properties of various natural substances; i.e., they’re not particularly convincing and they’re being made by people selling camel mil.”(4).
The above is probably the fairest assessment that can be made at the present time. I have found it difficult to find any authentic research to support most of the claims about the benefits to health which can result from consuming the milk of camels.
Nevertheless the fact that milk produced by camels is quite different from that produced by cattle sheep or goats may be highly significant. It does not contain beta-lactoglobulin and the beta-casein is different from that found in the milk of ruminants. These are the main causes of allergeric reactions to the milk. Camels’ milk also contains a number of immunoglobulins which are compatible with humans.
Some remarkable results have been obtained in Israel when camel milk was consumed by children who were experiencing severe allergic reactions (5). Case studies were conducted with 8 children aged between 4 months and 10 years who were placed on a diet in which all foods were replaced by camel milk for a period of 2 weeks. Then other foods were gradually re-introduced. Within 24 hours of starting to consume camel milk all the children showed a reduction in the severity of the symptoms. After 4 days all the symptoms had disappeared. There was no recurrence of the allergic reactions. One of the participants who was only 10 months old developed an ear infection subsequently which was severe and could not be cured by an operation. However, when the child was given camel milk again the infection cleared up within 48 hours.
In all 8 cases there was a rapid improvement in the children’s health which was followed by an ability to digest other foods. Clearly the absence of allergens was critical but it is suggested that immunoglobulins in the camel milk help to improve the immune system so that a wide variety of foods can subsequently be tolerated.
It is obvious that there is enormous potential for camels to play a critical role in the world food production system. But this will only be achieved if sufficient resources are deployed to conduct research on breeding, feeding and husbandry. The peculiar characteristics of the species provide it with very substantial advantages for many parts of the world where other species would struggle to survive. Furthermore if some of the health benefits actually materialise this would be an additional bonus.
- Y Shabo et al (2005) Israeli Medical Association Journal 7 (December) pp 796-798