CAIRO -- Camels from Sudan and Somalia are led across Egypt’s deserts, where they are sold for meat or pressed into service hauling tourists around ancient tombs and temples. But one part of the camel is often overlooked: Its salty milk may help in controlling diabetes.
Although nomadic folklore mentions the milk as a treatment for high blood sugars, science is only recently confirming its medicinal value.
A worldwide rise in diabetes has engulfed health agencies, especially in the Middle East, which, according to the International Diabetes Federation, claims five of the top 10 countries in diabetes prevalence.
Camel milk reduced blood sugars in Type 2 diabetics in a study led by Rajendra Agrawal at the Diabetes Care & Research Centre in Bikaner, India.
And those who rely on insulin, Type 1 diabetics, likewise reportedly benefited from camel milk in a 16-week trial at Cairo University.
Fifty-four participants received insulin; 27 in the group also drank a half-liter of camel milk daily. All diabetic markers improved for the latter. Most impressive were the boosts in C-peptide levels in the camel milk-drinking group, suggesting a boost in the body’s own insulin secretion.
This development led to a two-year study, again from Agrawal and colleagues in India, which showed that three of the 12 Type 1 participants drinking camel milk no longer needed insulin.
These potent qualities attracted the attention of scientists at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where camels have roamed the vast deserts for centuries. They reported that camel insulin is protected as it passes rapidly through the stomach into the bloodstream.
In an email, Agrawal explained that camel milk with its high insulin concentration lacks coagulum, making more insulin available for absorption. His research also showed that camel milk improves beta cell function in the pancreas, a plus for diabetics.
Mineral content is also high: An analysis from the National Nutrition Institute in Cairo found that camel milk had the most iron, zinc and copper of five milks tested, including human milk.
While the milk of mammals has long nourished human babies and served as the main ingredient for cheese, yogurt and beverages, cow milk has dominated the market. A camel yields little milk, about two gallons a day.
It is readily available in countries such as Sudan and Somalia, which have large camel herds, but its commercial prospects elsewhere are slim, including in the U.S., where regulation is strict.
Gil and Nancy Riegler, who run the Oasis Camel Dairy in Ramona, Calif., make camel soap and give camel rides as they await approval from the Food and Drug Administration to sell the milk.
On their website, Nancy Riegler wrote, "The laws concerning the public sale of raw milk are very stringent. However, individuals who own camels can legally drink their own camel's milk. So Gil and I get to enjoy fresh, raw camel's milk whenever we like."
-- Clare Fleishman
Photo: Camels are used in the tourism industry in Egypt, such as this one in Giza photographed last year. Credit: Carolyn Cole/ Los Angeles Times