Donkey milk’s history and uses
Donkeys belong to the Equidae family, which also includes horses and zebras. Various breeds of domesticated donkeys live all over the world, and like many other mammals, female donkeys, known as jennies, have been raised for thousands of years for their milk.
Donkey milk has a long history of medicinal and cosmetic uses. Hippocrates reportedly used it as a treatment for arthritis, coughs, and wounds. Cleopatra is said to have maintained her soft, smooth skin with donkey milk baths.
It has antimicrobial properties and is used as a folk medicine treatment for infections, including whooping cough, as well as viruses in parts of Africa and India.
Compared with milk from other dairy animals like cows, goats, sheep, buffalo, and camels, donkey milk most closely resembles human breast milk. In fact, it was first used in the 19th century to feed orphaned infants.
Donkey farming is becoming more popular. However, most farms are small with 5–30 milking jennies. Each produces only about 4 cups (1 liter) of milk per day. Thus, the milk is somewhat hard to find and considered a specialty item.
Raw donkey milk is usually sold at farms where donkeys are raised. In the United States, federal law prohibits the transportation of raw milk across state lines. Some larger farms may sell pasteurized donkey milk.
It’s more widely available as freeze-dried powdered milk and an ingredient in some European-imported chocolate bars. In Italy, where it’s especially popular, donkey milk is used in some infant formulas and as a medical food.
Donkey milk nutrition
Nutritionally, donkey milk is very similar to human breast and cow’s milk. It provides vitamins and minerals along with protein.
It’s lower in fat, and thus calories, and has more vitamin D than other kinds of milk. Most of the calories in donkey milk come from carbs, which are in the form of lactose.
Most of the protein in dairy milk comes from casein and whey. Casein is the protein most people with an allergy to cow’s milk react to. Donkey milk is similar to human breast milk in that it’s low in casein and higher in whey.
The whey protein in donkey milk is notable for its antimicrobial properties. It contains compounds that can prevent the growth of viruses and bacteria.
In lab studies, it prevents the spread of bacteria, including Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli, and Staphylococcus aureus.
Benefits of donkey milk
Fans of donkey milk often drink it for its health benefits, which go beyond its nutritional content. In particular, it has gained a lot of attention as an allergen-friendly and immune-boosting food.
Compared with the protein in cow’s milk, which has about five times more casein than whey, the protein in donkey milk has roughly equal parts casein and whey.
Given its significantly lower casein content, many people with a cow’s milk protein allergy can tolerate donkey milk, as they find that donkey milk doesn’t cause an allergic response.
That can be a plus for anyone who’s allergic to cow’s milk but may benefit from the protein and other nutrients that dairy milk provides.
An Italian study in 81 children with an allergy to cow’s milk found that all were able to drink donkey milk with no negative reaction. Swapping donkey milk allowed for regular weight and height gains.
Still, if you have a known allergy, check with your healthcare provider before trying donkey milk. While donkey milk contains less casein than cow’s milk, even a trace amount of casein can cause anaphylaxis in some people.
Another important component of donkey milk is lactose. It helps your body absorb calcium, which is important for strong bones.
Other compounds in the milk may support a healthier immune system. A lab study showed that donkey milk has the ability to promote the release of cytokines, which are proteins that stimulate the immune system.
That same study found that donkey milk also causes cells to produce nitric oxide, a compound that helps dilate blood vessels. Nitric oxide can improve blood flow to your blood vessels, which in turn reduces your blood pressure.
Downsides of donkey milk
The biggest downside of donkey milk is its price and availability. Because both the number and size of donkey dairy farms are limited, it’s expensive to produce and sell — and thus hard to come by.
Europe has some larger manufacturers who sell the milk in powdered form, but it can be expensive to ship overseas.
The price of donkey milk, along with its low casein content, also makes it very expensive and difficult to use for cheesemaking.
Another potential downside is that most small farms only sell raw donkey milk, and drinking unpasteurized milk carries a risk of foodborne illness.
Although donkey milk has antimicrobial properties, and tests usually find it to be free of harmful pathogens, there’s always a risk that raw milk contains bacteria or other harmful toxins.
That can be dangerous if fed to infants, older adults, or anyone with a compromised immune system.
If you want to try donkey milk in liquid or powder form, look for one that has been pasteurized. Alternatively, heat the raw milk to at least 161°F (72°C) for 15 seconds before drinking it to kill any pathogens.
Finally, if you have lactose intolerance and experience symptoms like gas, bloating, and diarrhea after drinking milk, donkey milk will likely cause these same symptoms due to its lactose content.
Thus, people with lactose intolerance should avoid or limit donkey milk. Alternatively, you can use a lactase enzyme to break down the lactose before drinking it.
Other donkey milk uses
Donkey milk is more than a food item. It’s just as well known for its use as an ingredient in cosmetics. In fact, you’ll probably have much better luck finding donkey milk skin moisturizers and soaps than donkey milk beverages.
The proteins in donkey milk have the ability to attract and hold water, which makes it an excellent moisturizer.
Some of the proteins in donkey milk also function as antioxidants. They help protect cells from oxidative damage, including that caused by sun exposure, thus providing anti-aging benefits.
Cosmetic products that may have donkey milk as a major ingredient include skin creams, face masks, soaps, and shampoos.
The bottom line
Donkey milk may sound like a new fad, but it has been used since ancient Greek and Roman times as a health-promoting beverage and skin-moisturizing cosmetic treatment.
It’s especially appealing to those with a cow’s milk protein allergy who can tolerate its low casein content.
However, note that it still contains a fair amount of lactose and may be unsuitable for people with lactose intolerance.
The milk also contains compounds that may strengthen your immune system and inhibit the growth of bacteria, viruses, and other infections.
Donkey milk is expensive and may be hard to find as a beverage, but you can still take advantage of its cosmetic benefits. It’s easy to find moisturizing creams, soaps, and shampoos made with donkey milk.
Healthline: Donkey Milk: Uses, Benefits and Downsides
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