It has been part of the staple diet of Bedouin tribes for generations, but now camel milk is starting to be appeciated the world over
For centuries, the nomadic people of desert lands have relied on camels. Not only have they been an invaluable means of transport, providing a livelihood for some and for many an essential source of nutrition - both their meat and the milk they produce can be consumed. In fact, generations of people in the Middle East have survived on a diet based around these two products and stories about their nutritional benefits have been passed down from generation to generation in the Middle East.
And it’s not for nothing. Recent scientific studies have shown that there are even more nutritional benefits to be gained from camel milk than first thought. Is it any wonder then that the camel milk industry has taken off in By Jude Hardy recent years? Far from suffering because of competition from cow’s milk and an influx of foreigners to the country with different dietary tastes, sales of camel milk have actually increased. In fact, it has never been more popular.
In September 2006, Camelicious - Dubai's first mass-produced camel milk and the endproduct of 20 years of research at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL) - hit the shelves. Scientists at the laboratory had come up scientific proof of the health benefits of a staple diet of dates and camel milk which had traditionally been followed by the Bedouin tribes in the Middle East up until the mid-20th century. Aware of its established popularity and its potential marketing possibilities it allowed, the Emirates Industry for Camel Milk and Products (EICMP) started manufacturing the milk after undertaking a pilot project, with just 20 camels. It has since increased the number of camels to a full herd of more than 2,000. What’s more, after the successful launch of Camelicious on the UAE market, EICMP launched several flavoured versions of the milk, including a date flavour and a saffron one.
But this is no ordinary type of farming. It is in fact quite specialised. Camels giving milk firstly need to have given birth, after which time the animal can be milked for up to 20 months (but more usually 12 to 16 months). Camels are trained to enter the milking parlour , as cows do, and this typically takes just one week. Specially-designed milking equipment is attached to the camel's udders for the milking process - the design also avoids udder infections developing.
And while it is no easy feat to produce the milk, the results are worth the effort in terms of nutrition. Compared to cow's milk, camel's milk is low fat, high in Vitamin C and is a natural pro-biotic. Cow's milk contains 4 to 4.5 per cent fat, while camel's milk has just 1.2 to 2 per cent naturally occurring fat. Camel's milk also contains five times more Vitamin C than its bovine counterpart. Other discoveries include the facts that camel's milk boosts the immune system; it can act as a milk alternative for the lactose intolerant; it's easily digestible as it doesn't curdle in the stomach; and it can reduce cholesterol.
On top of these health benefits, it also tastes pretty good. Fatima Abdul Rahman, the Principal Food Microbiologist at Dubai Municipality's Central Laboratory, points out that it has a sweet but also a sharp taste, and at times it can taste salty or watery. “The quality of the milk is affected by the number of calves [that the mother has produced]; the age of the animal; the stage of lactation; the quality and the quantity of feed; as well as the amount of water available,” she explains.“Vitamin C and Niacin are very much higher in camel milk; but the Vitamins and proteins in camel milk are different than those found in cow’s milk.”
Interestingly, camel's milk also has a longer shelf-life, compared to other types of milk, due to the presence of a number of compounds, which says Rahman is of great importance for the people living in desert areas where cooling facilities are not available”.
According to EICMP, a 250ml cup of camel milk contains as much protein as a large grade A egg; more thiamine, riboflavin and niacin than a slice of whole-wheat bread; half the cholesterol of fish (100g); less fat than 226g of ground beef; the same amount of calcium as seven whole sardines; almost as much potassium as a banana; and almost three-quarters the Vitamin A of half a cup of cooked broccoli.
In terms of recommended daily allowances (RDA) the same amount of camel's milk has 8 per cent Vitamin A; 8 per cent B1 (Thiamin); 25 per cent Riboflavin (B2); and 310 per cent RDA of Vitamin B. Is it any wonder it is known for its health benefits?
Camel milk is also produced in Al Ain, by Al ain Dairy
Milk, however, isn't the only product from the camel that's proving a hit in the UAE market. The world's first camel milk chocolate was launched in October 2008, by Al Nassma Chocolate. A total of 136 years after milk chocolate was invented; camel milk chocolate arrived on the market. The chocolate comes in five different flavours: 'Arabia' flavoured with local spices; date; macadamia nuts; orange; and 70 per cent cocoa. There is also a praline range filled with pistachio, nougat and coffee cream. Gold-foiled hollow camels have become a trademark product.
Al Nassma set itself out from the start as a luxury brand, and claimed it will never be available in supermarkets and will only be sold in its own dedicated outlets. One of these is based in Umm Nahad, on the dessert outskirts of Dubai and the site of the Camelicious factory, while the chocolates are also sold as far away as Japan. “Al Nassma is a unique product that encapsulates the spirit of Arabia and Dubai. Our product development for this exclusive chocolate has been meticulous and we have chosen only the finest ingredients to make sure we develop a premium product,” Martin van Almsick, General Manager of Al Nassma said at the launch of Camelicious chocolate.
Camel milk, on the other hand, has been marketed in a very different way. It’s been pushed into the majority of grocery and supermarket outlets in the UAE and aimed at a mass market. A brand of camel milk called ‘Camelaitis’ is also produced at Al Ain Dairy, and it used to onc produce camel milk icecream, which failed to take off at the time. However the company says it has plans to relaunch the product in the near future.
Camel milk could soon be used to make coffee too. Researchers at the UAE University in Al Ain, have noticed that it holds stiff foam, much more so than cow’s milk does. As a result local researchers have been looking into the development of camel milk powder, specially-designed for making cappuccinos.
At the university's Department of Food Science in the Faculty of Food and Agriculture, scientists have developed a process to produce camel milk cappuccino powder. This was tested on consumers in a sensory study, which determined that camel milk powder had similar properties to other products used in the production of cappuccinos. Cappuccinodrinkers liked the camel-milk version better because of its creamy taste, and the fact that the stable foam stayed atop their hot beverages for longer. The product has yet to be released, but when it does it will benefit both camel milk farmers, as well as the UAE dairy industry. And the camel milk industry is set to grow even more in coming years. In July of last year, the European Commission officially approved the safety and quality processes used in its production, and stated that UAE camel milk falls into line with the European Union (EU) health and food standards. This year, the UAE intends to export camel milk products to Europe and aims to be amongst one of the first suppliers of the product to the EU. An EU committee for registration of non-members' products has been scheduled to visit the region this year after a UAE file for safety and quality was submitted.
The future looks bright for food produced from the ‘ships of the desert’ (a term used to describe camels because of their ability to travel for long distances without water). Who knows what other benefits might also be found in the future, as studies on camel milk are on-going. Scientists are even considering the possibility that it could be used in the treatment of AIDS, as well as diabetes and coronary heart disease, but this has yet to be proven scientifically. One thing’s for sure however a glass of camel milk certainly packs a mean punch in terms of your health and it tastes good too.