You may think you’re fairly trendy if you drink goat milk instead of cow’s milk, or non-dairy milk such as soy, almond, cashew, hemp, or coconut milk. But there are other even more unusual milks out there. Scientists are currently studying the milk produced by a particular cockroach species, for instance. Don’t fancy that? How about milk from camels, donkeys, horses, or peas?
Here’s a look at five nontraditional milks (available online or at farmers’ markets and some grocers) and one on the horizon.
All over the world in places where camels are raised, people drink this slightly salty milk. One U.S. company, Desert Farms, produces bottled camel’s milk from camels raised on Amish farms. Most people who are allergic to cow’s milk can drink camel milk, because it contains a protein different from the one in cow’s milk that triggers the reaction. In some studies, camel milk has been shown to reduce blood sugar and A1C levels (a measure of long-term blood sugar control), which may help explain, at least in part, why diabetes is not common among populations that consume it. But there’s no evidence to back most of the traditional medical uses of camel milk, such as for anemia, asthma, liver disease, and hemorrhoids.
Horse (mare) milk
Tens of millions of people around the world, including in Russia and Mongolia, regularly drink this fermented milk, which dates back to Scythian tribes 2,500 years ago. (It’s rarely consumed raw due to its strong laxative effect.) In the early 20th century, it was delivered door-to-door in Germany. Today, mare milk dairies operate all over Europe. Watery in consistency, the milk is sweet due to its high lactose (milk sugar) content and has a bit of a grassy flavor with nutty notes. It’s high in polyunsaturated fats (including alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid) and low in saturated fat. Because it has a nutrition profile similar to human milk, it’s good for infants who can’t drink breast milk and for people who are allergic to cow’s milk.
Cleopatra was said to have bathed in donkey milk to preserve her youthful skin, while the Romans consumed the milk for its supposed healing powers. Even Pope Francis fondly remembers drinking donkey milk as a child. With the consistency of skim milk, donkey milk has a sweet, nutty flavor (though not as sweet as mare milk) and is rich in polyunsaturated fats, including ALA. Like mare milk, it is comparable to human milk in nutrients, and it may be less allergenic than cow or goat milk. Scientists are interested in certain proteins of donkey milk that may benefit inflammatory conditions and help modulate the immune system.
Touted for insomnia, this milk comes from cows that are milked before dawn under a special red light (no sun) to keep their melatonin levels high, and fed alfalfa to supposedly boost their tryptophan. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle, while tryptophan is an amino acid that affects mood and sleep. Studies have found that night milk might help mice sleep, but a 2005 paper in the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry from Finland could not come to any definitive conclusions about its effect on sleep quality in older humans, some with dementia, who drank it for eight weeks. Still, a few companies in Europe are selling night milk or a night-milk powder to mix with other beverages or yogurt.
Ripple is a new plant-based milk alternative made from yellow peas, intended for people who can’t (or don’t want to) consume dairy or soy. It’s high in protein (8 grams per 8 ounces) and fortified with calcium (45 percent of the Daily Value, more than cow’s milk). It also contains the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA, from added algal oil. With a thin, skim-milk-like consistency, it comes unsweetened (described as chalky), original flavor (with 6 grams of sugar), and flavored (very sweet, with 15 to 17 grams of sugar per serving).
Produced with less energy, water, and land use, as well as fewer greenhouse gas emissions and no animal welfare issues, the yeast-derived milk Perfect Day is being developed as an eco-friendly alternative to conventional milk. It’s produced in the lab by combining cow DNA with yeast and sugar to make casein and whey (milk proteins); plant-based fats and nutrients are then added. It tastes like milk that comes from cows and has the same nutrient profile—but is lactose-free. Expect to see it, along with cheese, yogurt, and ice cream made from it, by 2018, though the FDA will probably not allow it to be labeled as milk, since it doesn’t involve milking a cow, which is part of the standard of identity for milk.
Also see Healthy Alternatives to Cow’s Milk.