Demystifying Dairy: Cow vs. Goat and Sheep Milk

With what seems like an ever-rising prevalence of food allergies and sensitivities, food companies are providing more and more products to accommodate a plethora of special diets. Even something as simple as milk, a staple in refrigerators all over the world, now has countless variations; whereas before skim and whole were your only options, today you may select between cow milk, goat milk, sheep milk, buffalo milk, almond milk, cashew milk, coconut milk and soy – the list goes on and on.

Non-dairy milks are great for those following a vegan lifestyle, but what about those who are lactose intolerant? There has recently been some confusion as to what specifically distinguishes goat and sheep milk from cow milk. Specifically, can those with lactose intolerance consume sheep and goat milk? And are these milks considered “dairy”? Here, we demystify the real the differences (and similarities) among the three types.

Cow milk: Although lower in total and saturated fat than the other two, cow milk boasts the largest size fat globules. This property makes it easier to separate out the cream, and thus allows for the production of low fat milk varieties. As for nutrients, cow milk contains greater levels of vitamin B12 and folate, as well as more total protein than goat and sheep milk.

Goat milk: This variety is actually the most similar to human milk in composition. As such, it may trigger fewer allergic reactions than the other two types. Goat milk has smaller fat globules than cow’s milk, which means it is relatively easier to digest. The high proportion of medium chain fatty acids, which are immediately absorbed into the bloodstream and not technically broken down, also enhances the digestibility of this type of milk. Goat milk contains more calcium and magnesium than cow milk, and contains some vitamin C. Flavor-wise, goat milk has more of an acidic bite and a characteristic richness.

Sheep milk: Like goat milk, this variety is naturally homogenized, meaning the cream does not separate out, making the milk easier to digest. It contains more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which lends it potential anti-carcinogenic properties. Sheep milk has the highest content of milk solids (which means more fat and protein), as well as a higher amount of lactose. These qualities work synergistically to make it taste rich and sweet, almost too difficult for most people to drink it on its own.

So what are the implications for people who suffer from a dairy allergy or intolerance? Those who are allergic to dairy mount an immune response when dairy products are consumed. The body identifies specific proteins found in milk as harmful antigens and thus produces antibodies to attack them. As mammalian milk proteins are relatively similar among different mammals, a person with a cow milk allergy will likely have a related allergic response when exposed to goat and sheep milk proteins. Although these milk varieties differ in proportional amounts of protein, the proteins are still present in each kind of milk.

Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, results when someone lacks the ability to digest lactose, the major sugar – not protein – found in animal milk. This occurs when the body’s ability to synthesize lactase, the enzyme responsible for lactose metabolism, diminishes. Proportionally speaking, cow, goat and sheep milk all contain similar levels of lactose; therefore, lactose intolerance may mean one should steer clear of all three.

So, simply stated, cow, sheep and goat milk are all mammalian dairy products with lactose, milk proteins, and other similar nutrients that are responsible for allergies and intolerances across the board. It’s the proportions of these various components that differ and thus make the milks taste different.