Mailbag: Is milk good for me? Sheep Milk?

May 27, 2009 | By: John Serrao

Featured, Food, Mailbag

How good is milk for me?  In particular, how good is sheep milk of the Spanish Manchego variety?

Jessica, Washington DC

Dairy Up Close

sheep_face1

Pretty healthy, in moderation - thanks to flickr user: redfishid

These are excellent questions.  Most dairy products have great nutritional profiles.  They are loaded with good fats, minerals like the antioxidant selenium and vitamins like vitamin D, crucial to good bone health.  The USDA inspects the behind most food stuffs, including sheep’s milk (which you can see here, search for sheep milk), but not the Manchego variety in particular.  More than a particular species like Manchego Sheep, proper animal husbandry translates into better nutrition in the animals’ finished products, as we have seen in previouslyespecially in the fat profileLook for pasture raised milk as these animals generally eat the best food.  You may have to get very creative to find it.  Local food co-ops are your best bet.

Watch this video to better understand what proper animal care really means for your health:

Nutritionally though, things get more complex.  Most people eat dairy because they think its high in calcium.  What they dont know is that calcium can only be absorbed into the body when its eaten with vitamin D and phosphorus.  You could eat 100 pounds of cheese and, if you didn’t have any phosphorus or vitamin D, none of the calcium would be absorbed into your bones.

The Calcium Phosphorus Connection

Fortunately, these nutrients usually occur together, although in variable amounts.  The calcium in dairy products if any kind can best be tolerated by the body when the balance of calcium and phosphorus are closest to that of human mother’s breast milk, which is 2:1 calcium to phosphorus.  This ratio is far higher than the calcium and phosphorus ratio present in the milk from most other mammals, like cow’s milk (~1.3:1), goat’s milk (~1.2:1) and sheep’s milk (~1.2:1).  [1,2].  (Remember, these numbers are just averages and could range wildly depending on what the cow is eating or what kind of soil your crops are in, something the USDA never considers.)

A German study postulates that the evolutionary advantage of the lower phosphoric content in humans allowed their excrement to remain exceptionally acidic, thereby killing additional pathogens that could harm humans many thousands of years ago.  This also made humans exceptionally good at extracting phosphorus from food sources, which can be both good and bad.

Yes, he is.

Yes, he is.

Westernized diets are extremely tilted towards phosphoric foods like corn (.08:1 ratio) and chicken (.09:1 ratio), which have over 10X more phosphorus than calcium!   You can quickly see why our evolutionary advantage turns into a disadvantage: calcium deficiencies and osteoporosis are such a big issue now largely because we are getting excessive amounts of phosphorus and too little calcium from sources we cannot properly use.  This is one large reason to limit the amount of dairy, including sheep’s milk, that you are eating in general, and replace it with leafy greens like spinach – which tend towards the magic 2:1 calcium phosphorus ratio.  (Leafy greens are probably where most cultures got their dairy, as hard as the ‘Got Milk’ campaign has made that may be for you to believe.)

Lactose

Another problem with dairy, including sheep’s milk, is that most humans rarely ate large quantities of dairy until the 20th century.  This leaves much of the world’s population unable to process the milk protein lactose, with some Asian and African ethnic groups over 90% lactose intolerant to some degree.  Below is a chart of the average lactose intolerance across some racial groups put out by UC Davis:

Lactose Intolerance by ethnicity

Race, Ethnicity, Country of Origin Percentage
Southeast Asians 98%
Asian Americans 90%
Alaskan Eskimo 80%
African-American Adults 79%
Mexicans (rural communities) 74%
North American Jews 69%
Greek Cypriots 66%
Cretans 56%
Mexican American Males 55%
Indian Adults 50%
African American Children 45%
Indian Children 20%
Descendents of Northern Europe 5%

Unless you are from Northern Europe, you are likely to have problem with dairy in general.  You may not think you are lactose intolerant because your body has built an immunity towards it but take a break from dairy for a couple of weeks and then revisit the subject.  You may be surprised by what you find.

Lactose Intolerance by Country (via Wikipedia) - click on picture for full-size version

Lactose Intolerance by Country (via Wikipedia) - click on picture for full-size version

Many people enjoy dairy despite lactose intolerance, you just have to be smart about it.  Although accurate lactose analysis methodology is not uniformly performed by the USDA, it is widely held that milk has the highest lactose content of any dairy product.  Try raw milk cheeses like swiss and cheddar, as cheese has less lactose than milk and raw varieties will have digestive enzymes which may aid digestion.

Making Sense of Dairy

Taking all this information together, it makes sense to eat dairy only in small amounts.  You should aim to get most of your calcium from leafy greens as it is far easier to digest and helps restore the delicate balance between calcium and phosphorus in your body.  It also makes sense to consider your ethnic background when eating sheep’s milk or any kind of dairy.  If you are asian, african, latino or jewish you should probably avoid all dairy with high amounts of lactose like pasteurized milk.  Raw milk, with its extra digestive enzymes might help but your mileage may vary.  Limited amounts of cheese, like feta, goat, swiss and cheddar are probably the best bet for most people who still want to enjoy dairy products from time to time.

Sources:

USDA Chart with Phosphorus and Calcium Ratios:
http://www.answers.com/topic/phosphorus-and-calcium

USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory:
http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/

Ethnic Lactose Intolerance:
NCMHC Center for Nutritional Genomics (UC Davis)

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