By Rebecca Sanderson – In the debate between goat milk vs. cow milk, there is often the question of whether a milk protein allergy to one equals an allergy to both. In short; yes and no. However, for those without a true allergy but having sensitivity to cow milk, whether concerning the amount of lactose or other digestive issues, they can often partake of goat milk without the unpleasant side effects that they get with cow milk.
In regards to the question of whether or not someone who is allergic to cow milk can safely drink goat milk, the answer is sometimes. A milk allergy is an immune reaction to the proteins found in milk. The job of your immune system is to find and attack foreign invaders in the body, usually bacteria or viruses. When a person develops an allergy, their immune system mistakenly identifies a specific food protein as a foreign invader. The immune system develops antibodies called immunoglobulin E that attack the food proteins as well as cause a chemical reaction in the cells of the body. This chemical reaction causes symptoms such as hives, itching, trouble breathing, or even anaphylaxis (What Causes Food Allergies).¹ Cow milk contains whey protein and casein protein. While both proteins may be involved in the allergy, typically casein is the more involved of the two. Between cow milk and goat milk, there are two different casein proteins. Cow milk contains the alpha-s-1 casein. Goat milk sometimes has the alpha-s-1 casein in small amounts but predominately contains the alpha-s-2 casein instead (“Why Goat Milk Benefits Matter,” by George F.W. Haenleins, originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of Dairy Goat Journal).² From this information, one would deduce that goat milk would in fact be safe for those with a cow milk protein allergy. However, allergy experts typically disagree. According to Allergic Living magazine, the proteins between cow and goat milk are too similar in structure, causing the body to confuse them up to 90 percent of the time. This confusion of the proteins would cause the same immune response as to the true allergen, making goat milk an unsafe substitute in the case of a cow milk protein allergy. (Sharma, 2012)³
Milk protein allergies are one of the most common for baby allergies. It is estimated that between 8-20 percent of babies have an allergy to cow milk proteins. Most of these babies will outgrow this allergy in the first couple years of life, but it can be a great inconvenience while they have it. This allergy changes what formula a parent can give and dramatically changes the typical diet of a breastfeeding mother. Because the food proteins pass through breastmilk to the baby, allergenic food that a mother eats can cause an allergic reaction for her child without that child ever coming into direct contact with said food. As a mother who has very recently gone through this exact experience, I can attest to how sensitive an allergic baby can be to the tiniest bit of cow milk or cow milk product in the mother’s diet. I remember eating three of my older daughter’s goldfish crackers then staying up all night with my screaming baby as her little body reacted to the milk. The dairy product I missed the very most was cheese, so I quickly started trying various types of goat cheese. In trying many different varieties and brands, I only found one brand of chèvre cheese that seemed to produce an allergic reaction in my child, which was slightly subdued from the typical reaction to cow milk, but all other brands seemed completely allergen-free. I even made a homemade nonalcoholic eggnog recipe from goat milk at Christmastime. In my personal experience, goat milk did not trigger my child’s allergy response. Switching to goat milk products was a mild adjustment as I found the flavor much more robust than to what I was accustomed. However, adjusting my tastes was worth the effort so that my baby could not be in pain. I am very grateful that goat milk was a suitable alternative, especially because I did not care for the texture (or price) of vegan cheese alternatives.
Much more common than a cow milk protein allergy is a simple sensitivity to cow milk. In this case, the reaction is limited to the digestive tract rather than an immune response. This can result in bloating, excess gas, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea. Many people suffer from lactose intolerance, also known as lactase deficiency. Lactose is the type of sugar found in milk, giving it that slightly sweet taste. For many people, their body stops producing the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose in milk, after infancy. While lactose intolerance is the most common intolerance to cow milk, affecting roughly 25 percent of Americans and up to 75 percent of the world’s population, some people have trouble digesting cow milk regardless of the lactose. This could be related to the size of fat globules in the milk. Goat milk has smaller fat globules and less lactose, making it easier for the body to break down in digestion. Goat milk is naturally homogenized, as the smaller fat globules remain suspended in the milk rather than rising to the top as does the cream in cow milk. In regards to the fat content of goat milk, it has a higher proportion of short and medium chain fatty acids than cow milk without having much difference in the total fat content. These short and medium chain fatty acids are easier for the body to break down and digest resulting in less digestive discomfort as well as better nutrient absorption (“Why Goat Milk Benefits Matter”). The primary reason why short and medium chain fatty acids are easier for the body to break down is that the intestine is able to directly absorb them into the bloodstream unlike long chain fatty acids which require pancreatic enzymes and bile salts to break down before they can be absorbed. This helps lighten the load on the pancreas which is always a good thing.
Whether or not goat milk is safe for the cow milk protein allergy sufferer is still debatable. Some experts say that it is likely safe while others claim that it is more likely not. From the evidence, clinical and anecdotal, it would seem that it is at least worth a try. At least in regards to a digestive sensitivity, we can say that goat milk is a veritable substitute that is much easier on the digestive process.
Have you found goat milk to be a safe substitute for a cow milk protein allergy? Let us know in the comments.
¹ What Causes Food Allergies. (n.d.). Retrieved May 18, 2018, from Food Allergy Research and Education: https://www.foodallergy.org/life-food-allergies/food-allergy-101/what-causes-food-allergies
²”Why Goat Milk Benefits Matter,” by George F.W. Haenleins, originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of Dairy Goat Journal
³ Sharma, D. H. (2012, July 10). Is Goat’s Milk Safe for Dairy Allergy? Retrieved April 17, 2018, from Allergic Living: https://www.allergicliving.com/experts/is-goats-milk-safe-for-dairy-allergy/