Occasionally a topic comes onto our radar that is on first glance so unlikely that it just has to be worthy of further investigation. Back in July last year, one such subject emerged when we brought you news of a new potential superfood. No, it was not the now somewhat famous article on milking cockroaches, but an analysis of newly emerging data suggesting that camels’ milk could be the next option in the dairy aisle. In Could Camel Creamer be the Next Big Thing to Customize Your Cup of Joe? we looked at the emerging business of dromedary dairies, the environmental impacts of camel husbandry, and our concerns regarding the potential for contamination and its impact on consumers’ health. What we didn’t expect, however, is for new data to emerge so rapidly suggesting that camels’ milk is not only a potential rival to bovine milk in terms of nutrition but that it could additionally be of therapeutic interest. Or, to put it more succinctly, we did not anticipate that it could be leveraged in the treatment of two of today’s most prevalent and feared conditions: cancer and diabetes. Intrigued? Read on!
The nutritive and medicinal benefits of camels’ milk have long been important to populations in the Middle East and some communities in Asia and Africa. However, it is only with the increased interest in expanding camel ‘farming’ to areas not traditionally associated with the animal that researchers have begun to investigate the liquid’s potentially therapeutic effects. In fermented form, the milk is associated with reducing gastrointestinal ailments – diarrhea, for instance – due to its bioactive peptides such as lactoperoxidase and immunoglobulin. Furthermore, with a different protein profile from that of the dairy beverage, camels’ milk may also be helpful to those with food allergies or sensitivities.
According to an article in Dairy Reporter, an online news source for the dairy industry published in the United Kingdom by William Reed, recent studies in Jordan and in Wales have linked the consumption of dromedary milk both with the slowed progression – or indeed prevention – of type 2 diabetes and with the decrease in tumor formation. The latter research involved 30 mice with colorectal cancer which were divided into three groups: one fed on whey derived from camels’ milk, another upon whey from cows’ milk, and the third set of mice – the control group – remained dairy-free. At the conclusion of the study, postmortem analysis of the animals revealed that 60% of the dairy-free mice had a significant number of colorectal tumors, along with 75% of those fed with whey from bovine milk. However, in the group receiving whey from camels’ milk tumors were found in only 1 mouse in 8, or 12.5% of the study subjects.(1)
And this seems like a statistically significant finding meriting further investigation into the potential for anticancer properties in dromedary milk. According to author Jim Cornall the ‘inhibitory potential of whey protein hydrolysates […] as a potential therapeutic agent for cancer’ is a new avenue for further research.(2) Alongside the reduction in colorectal tumors in mice, claims Cornall, camel whey protein hydrolysates also show promise as a treatment for liver cancer, targeting human HepG2 cells. Furthermore, according to an article published in the Emirates Journal of Food and Agriculture (EJFA), ‘Compositional and therapeutic properties of camel milk: A review’, the milk may also inhibit the development of lung and breast cancers, possibly by preventing the formation of new blood vessels to the tumors.(3) However, although lactoferrin – an antioxidant occurring in high doses in the milk – has been shown to play a significant role, few other compounds have been identified that could explain how the liquid acts to retard the disease’s progression.
According to researchers at Cardiff Metropolitan University, Wales, consumption of camels’ milk could prevent or at least slow the advancement of the disease. How? It’s all about inflammation and macrophages. Present in abdominal fat, macrophages are large white blood cells whose role within the immune system is to locate and ‘eat’ particles such as fungi, viruses, bacteria, and parasites. From the Greek for ‘big eaters,’ macrophages detect microorganisms such as bacteria using pattern recognition receptors such as Toll-like receptors (TLRs), c-type lectin receptors, and scavenger receptors which bind to components of pathogens – sugars, RNA, DNA or specific proteins – in order to eliminate them. Found throughout the body, these cells have specific specializations: in the lungs, for instance, alveolar macrophages control immunity to respiratory pathogens whereas, in the liver, Kupffer cells are in charge of remodeling hepatic tissues. And although macrophages are initially specialist operators, they are also inherently plastic and can change their function depending upon environmental cues. And it is this plasticity that can lead to problems.
According to an article published in the journal Nature, macrophages ‘rapidly change their function in response to local environmental signals […adopting] context-dependent phenotypes that either promote or inhibit host antimicrobial defense, anti tumor immune responses and inflammatory responses.’(4) This means that, when activated under certain conditions, these immune system warriors ‘exhibit both protective and pathogenic roles in […] autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.’(5) In other words, these ‘big eaters’ can be both a friend and a foe, depending upon the specific circumstances.
Returning to the subject of dromedary dairy once more, how does the consumption of camels’ milk affect the behavior of macrophages? Well, this is where it all gets very interesting. According to the Dairy Reporter article, when researchers ‘incubated macrophages with saturated and unsaturated lipids taken from camel’s milk, both individually and in a mixture of the two […] experiments showed that the fatty acids […] reduce the inflammation produced by the macrophages. […Furthermore the effect] was more pronounced in the mixture of the lipids than when the camel milk was with only unsaturated fatty acids.’(6) Furthermore, the group of proteins usually are associated with causing increased macrophage inflammation were actually reduced by this lipid mix, signaling – for once – that this is one situation in which saturated fats actually deliver a net positive in terms of health-promoting results. As anyone following current thoughts in dietetic science will attest, this is not something that is heard very often…
But before we all rush out to the grocery store and demand it stock this apparent ‘cure-it-all’ let’s take one moment to consider two points. Firstly, Hammam’s article in the EJFA concludes in part with a claim that consumption of camels’ milk cures autism – ‘It solves the problem of autism in children’ – a claim roundly refuted by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).(7) Per an article published back in 2017, the FDA issued an alert ‘warning consumers not to try a long list of ineffective and potentially dangerous things being peddled as autism treatments – including raw camel’s milk.’(8) So with that in mind, we may have to cast a more critical eye upon the work of Hammam et al. Additionally, it is also important to recall the caution expressed by Keith Morris, lead author of the Welsh study. A professor of biomedical science and biostatistics at Cardiff Metropolitan University, Morris notes: ‘We can’t say for certain whether camel milk ‘cures’ diabetes, or if it would reduce inflammation if a person with type 2 diabetes regularly consumed it. Our new data suggests that it may play a role in reducing the inflammation that is a major part of type 2 diabetes. Far more experimental work and at some point human trials are required to demonstrate if these results have relevance to people.’(9)
In other words, whether your favorite beverage is the traditional cows’ milk or one of the arguably already healthier plant-based alternatives, it may be too early to abandon it in favor of this newly-hyped substitute. Despite data promoted by sources such as the Dairy Reporter (with its evident potential for self-interest) or that emanating from academic journals hailing from countries with a bias towards the promotion of this product (the EJFA is based in the Arabian Peninsula) the jury is still out on the health-affirming properties of the drink. As we discussed in our earlier article (available here), contamination control problems are rife in the commercial production of camels’ milk for human consumption in areas such as Kazakhstan and Ethiopia, although the FDA has acknowledged the UAE’s implementation of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocols in its burgeoning industry. But, given the mixed messages and need for further research on human subjects, it may still be prudent to question whether the time is yet right for milk consumers in search of the latest and greatest lacteal secretion to jump ship – even if you’re jumping to the so-called ‘ship of the desert.’
Did you read our earlier article on camels’ milk? Has this update changed your thoughts in either direction? We’d love to know!