When we talk about milk, we’re usually referring to cow’s milk – the most common milk product available. For some people, drinking milk or having milk products can be a horrible experience, causing stomach upsets and making regular trips to the bathroom. You may know someone who experiences this regularly, or you yourself may not get along very well with milk.
The two main culprits responsible are sugar and protein.
First, let’s go into a brief explanation of what they are and why they might cause problems.
Lactose is a sugar or carbohydrate present in dairy products. To digest lactose, our bodies produce the enzyme lactase. However, some people’s bodies don’t make lactase, or don’t make enough of it to digest lactose. When lactose stays in the gut, bacteria begin to ferment it, giving off gases that may make you feel bloated and unwell. This is commonly known as lactose intolerance and is pretty common in the general population – and more so in societies that traditionally don’t include dairy products in their diet.
Milk contains a number of proteins, but we can group them into two - whey and casein.
Whey proteins include ß-lactoglobulin and α-lactalbumin, as well as lesser known immunoglobulins. αs1-casein, αs2-casein and ß-casein belong to - you guessed it - the other group of proteins called caseins. These are the proteins that may trigger some people’s immune systems go into defense mode - aka: an allergic reaction.
Cow’s milk allergy (CMA) is common in babies and most of them outgrow this allergy by the age of 3. Although it’s not common in adults, there are in fact adults with cow’s milk allergy (shoutout to you guys if you’re reading this!)
Still unsure about the difference between intolerances and allergies? Clear up your confusion by reading our previous post!
Unfortunately, we still can’t pinpoint what exactly it is that makes some people intolerant to cow’s milk.
There are however, plenty of alternatives to cow’s milk - here’s a quick rundown of them!
Although cows produce most of the world’s milk, goat’s milk is the most consumed milk globally, particularly in South Asian and sub-Saharan African countries. It is becoming increasingly popular due to its digestibility and potential therapeutic effects on human health. It’s been said that goat’s milk is easier to digest than cow’s milk, mainly because the fat globules in goat’s milk are smaller. Most of the studies done on the suitability of goat’s milk as an alternative has mainly been for cow’s milk allergy in infants. Goat’s milk has a very distinctive taste, so bear this in mind if you’re thinking of trying it out.
Sheep milk is uncommon in Australia and because of its high fat content, it is usually used in making cheeses. The total protein content of sheep milk is highest compared to other major dairy milks. Both goat and sheep milk contain similar amounts of lactose to cow’s milk, so may not be a good alternative for people with lactose intolerance. Proteins in sheep and goat milk are structurally similar to those in cow’s milk, and may cause reactions in people with cow’s milk allergy.
I don’t know about you, but when I think about camels, I picture sand dunes and deserts, not milk. Communities like the nomadic Bedouins and some Middle Eastern cultures consume camel milk and related products as part of their diet. Camel milk has a lower lactose content compared to cow’s milk, which is why some people who are lactose intolerant can tolerate camel milk a little better. B-lactoglobulin, an allergenic protein found in cow’s, sheep and goat’s milk, is absent in camel milk, making it easier for some people to stomach.
Claims have been made about camel milk having therapeutic effects on various conditions like diabetes and autism spectrum disorder. The catch - camel milk is expensive at about $20 per litre, and you won’t find it down the dairy aisle at Coles or Woolies. Some organic markets and grocers will stock it or you can buy it directly from camel farms if you’re keen to give it a go!
What about a2 milk?
We've all seen the ads - "Thank you A2!" - but what is it?
There are two types of beta-caseins in cow’s milk, A1 and A2. It’s been found that the A1 protein is the main culprit when it comes to casein sensitivity. A2 milk only contains the A2 variant of the beta-casein, making it more tolerable for some people. That being said, the A1 casein is not harmful at all, so if you can drink non-A2 milk, by all means keep doing so, as there isn’t any concrete evidence to show that you should only be drinking A2 milk.
So, how do these milks stack up against each other?
The bottom line is - all milk contains lactose. Some people have a threshold of what they can or can’t tolerate. All in all, choose the best milk that helps you manage your pain or symptoms. What works for others may not necessarily work for you, so if you know that something works for you, stick with it.
This probably won't work for you though.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alisa Lau an international student from Brunei Darussalam, and is currently studying a Masters of Dietetics at the University of Queensland. She wants to break the mindset that ‘healthy food is expensive’ and believes that healthy living is achievable and affordable for everyone across all cultures. Although she doesn't have any food issues herself, Alisa acknowledges that many others do, and as a dietitian-to-be, believes in advocating for them and equipping them to make informed choices about food.
Lactose intolerance and management
Milk allergy management
Milk protein allergy
Camel milk and allergy
Camel milk and diabetes
Camel milk and autism spectrum disorder
Goat and sheep milk
Comparison of cow, goat, sheep and camel milk
Milk and dairy products