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Which beast has the best milk for humans?

Many mammals have been called into dairy duty but the ingredients – and taste – of their milk vary. 

In his new book, Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas, Mark Kurlansky takes the reader on an armchair tour of this most contentious food, beginning with the question – what beast is best?

Northern Europeans once considered reindeer milk the best; for a time, elk milk was a hit. The French medieval guide book Le Ménagier de Paris cautioned that the ill and convalescent should avoid cows’ milk. The best milk, it asserted, was human milk, followed by that from donkeys, sheep and goats.

Different milks have varying amounts of fat, protein and lactose. In the freezing waters of the North Atlantic, the milk of a hooded seal is 61% fat. In southern Africa’s arid savannahs, black rhinos’ milk contains just 0.2% fat. Human milk is made up of 4% fat, 1.3% protein and 7.2% lactose. About 90% is just water.

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A BBC report says the closest to human milk could be that of the plains zebra, with 2.2% fat, 1.6% protein, 7% lactose, and 89% water. But in a surprisingly long list of mammals called into dairy duty, the zebra doesn’t get a mention.

Donkey milk is produced commercially, especially in Italy, but it has less fat than human milk. Horse milk is extremely low in fat. Donkeys and horses are also monogastric – they have a single-chambered stomach like humans, unlike ruminant animals such as cows, goats and camels.

It makes sense, Kurlansky writes, “that milk produced by an animal that digests the way we do would be most suitable for us”.

But horse milk has caught on in only a few cultures – perhaps, as Kurlansky attests, because the taste is “quite strong and awful”.

Yak milk, still used in high-altitude Tibet, is lactose-sweet and 6% butterfat – far higher than most other milks.

Goats don’t need rich green pastures but their milk has triple the amount of protein and less vitamin B-12, essential for creating red blood cells. Sheep milk is richer in milk solids than that of the goat and cow, but sheep are notoriously poor milk producers – one day’s milking of 20 lacaune sheep for Basque cheese produces only enough to fill a 40-litre milk can.

Buffalo milk is still consumed in India and the Philippines, and is used to make mozzarella cheese in Italy. Its scorecard is promising: it has more fat but less cholesterol than cows’ milk, it keeps without spoiling for longer and the animals are productive for up to 20 years, more than twice as long as cows.

The llama provides milk in South America, but these animals were not milked until Europeans arrived. Milk from the conveniently tall but grumpy camel is still an important part of the Bedouin diet.

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.