A Nice Tall Glass of Camel's Milk

An oasis in the dromedary-dairy desert?
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Two years ago, a University of Southern California student named Walid Abdul-Wahab was visiting his native Saudi Arabia during the holy month of Ramadan when he noticed that everyone seemed to be drinking raw camel’s milk. The beverage is considered to be a favorite of the Prophet Muhammad's, according to Wahab, and during Ramadan, many Muslims try to walk in the Prophet’s footsteps. They might not have many other options: Because of refrigeration issues, the only cow’s milk he could find there was powdered.

Wahab thought the camel’s milk tasted fantastic. Back in the U.S., he was hankering to launch a startup and thought he might be able to popularize the drink among farm-to-fork-obsessed West Coasters.

When it comes to food, he told me recently, “the world follows the U.S., and the U.S. follows California.”

Desert Farms

The biggest obstacle was in finding enough camel farmers. There were very few in the U.S., and they were mostly concentrated among the Amish, a segment Wahab calls “entrepreneurial and innovative."

“They are always looking for the new thing in agriculture,” he said.  Unfortunately, they are decidedly not always looking for the next new thing in communication technology, so Wahab found it hard to get it touch. He flew to Pennsylvania from Los Angeles and tried to convince the Amish farmers, some of whom already owned camels and used them for Christmas nativity scenes, to start milking the beasts. One farmer told another, and so on. Wahab ended up with a network of seven camel farmers across the Midwest.

In January of this year, he began selling the camel’s milk and kefir in 50 California Whole Foods stores and by mail order. He now has $150,000 in sales.

*  *  *

Camel milk retails for $18 for a 16-ounce bottle, compared to about $3.50 a gallon for the cow variety. “Camels don’t give lots of milk, but what they do give is precious,” his site explains. “They only give milk when they have a baby and lactation lasts from 10 months to over a year.” A camel can produce about two gallons of milk a day, while a cow produces around 12.

Nutritionally, camel milk and cow’s milk are roughly equal: Camel’s milk has less cholesterol than cow’s milk, but it also contains less Vitamin A and B2. Wahab says the stuff tastes like regular milk, only slightly sweeter. The camel's diet plays a role: The less water it drinks, the sweeter the milk.

But he thinks taste isn’t what’s drawing customers to “live every day like it’s hump day.”

“I don’t think this product is for the average joe,” Wahab said. “It's more for the well-aware, health-conscious community.”

The company estimates that 60 percent its customers are the parents of children with autism. Wahab points to a study published in an alternative medicine journal that found that 25 autistic children who were given camel’s milk, as opposed to cow’s milk, had lower levels of oxidative stress and showed improvements in behavior. He also presents isolated studies that show camel milk helping everything from diabetic wounds (in mice), to insulin resistance (in 28 Indians), to allergies (if your allergy is to cow’s milk.)

He also presents an enormous disclaimer, positioned in the center of the site’s “Science and Research” page, that might deflate some nascent camel-elixir hopes:

When it comes to new foods, the market is a little like a dietary Rule 34: If a body issue exists, there is a supposed miracle food for it. The studies behind camel milk are small and not definitive. Some people believe that eliminating cow milk from the diet helps with autism, but the science behind that claim is far from settled.

“All in all, the research doesn’t amount to much,” wrote the physician Harriet Hall in a Science-Based Medicine blog post about the substance. “Camel milk can only be classed as experimental treatment.”

There are other options for those who want to avoid sugar, lactose, or cow’s milk proteins, such as unsweetened almond milk. For those who simply long to drink the mammary liquid of a dromedary, though, Desert Farms awaits.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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