"Can we make cheese out of whale milk?" I ask Dr. Young W. Park on the phone. Earlier in our conversation, Park had alluded to the high total solid and fat content of whale milk. Both are variables ideal for cheesemaking.
"High percentage of total solids in a milk means more efficient productivity for cheese," he had noted.
Why not, I reasoned, make whale cheese? Whale milk has one of the highest total solid and fat content in the world.
"If we have enough milk, I guess. But they only nurse once a year," he replies matter-of-factly. Perhaps he senses my disappointment, because immediately he goes on to list strange cheeses that actually do exist in the world.
Moose cheese in Russia: "One pound is about $1,000. It's a very good product but very rare."
Reindeer cheese in Norway: "It's very rare and nutritious. Not much is available."
Camel cheese from North Africa: "It has a lot of therapeutic values. It's very precious."
Park is a wealth of information on alternative cheeses and milk. A food science professor and founder of CapriDairyWorld, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the dissemination of scientific information on goat milk, Park is one of the leading experts on non-bovine dairy and its properties. In fact, he edited an entire tome on the subject, the Handbook of Milk of Non‑Bovine Mammals—a whopping 470 pages on the milks of ten non-bovine mammals: goats, sheep, buffaloes, mares, camels, yaks, reindeer, sows, llamas, and humans. There's also brief section that touches on minor species like polar bears, asses, whales, and seals.
While the book is a dairy nerd's dream, full of obscure information like how llama milk has 2.5 percent more sugar than cow milk and that gray seals have some of the fattiest milks of all mammals at 53 percent, it also touches on a more serious note: mainly, that cow milk is not sustainable and that we should be diversifying our dairy consumption depending on where we live.
"Cows can be mostly raised in [the] Western world or developed countries where the weather and production conditions, [mechanization], and management conditions are incomparably better than those of underdeveloped counties," Park says.
The greenhouse gas impact of cows is quite significant; they produce 150 billion gallons of methane each day.
Park argues that dairy consumers should be looking at which mammals are best suited to their geography instead of defaulting to cow's milk. Goats, he reasons, are a far better alternative because of their adaptability and considerably lower carbon footprint.
Other mammal milks offer additional advantages. Park claims the for newborn human babies, horse milk is better than cow milk.
For certain groups in China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, horse milk is a dietary staple, consumed raw or fermented. The latter beverage is called koumiss and tastes similar to kefir.
"I don't drink cow milk at all," Hainar, a 21-year-old Kazakh nomad, told me recently. I met Hainar in the Natali grasslands, located in the northern section of Xinjiang, a Chinese province that borders of Kazakhstan. He was raised exclusively on horse milk and does not find cow milk at all palatable.
The Kazakhs are a Turkic tribe that graze sheep, camels, and horses. They also raise eagles for hunting wolves. But of all their animals, the horse is the most revered. It is a source of transportation, meat, and milk. Each family owns at least a dozen horses and the horses are milked at least five times a day.
"Horse milk is outstanding," Park says. "It has a lot of benefits, especially for tuberculosis."
Parks adds that mare milk has also been used for the treatment of hepatitis and chronic ulcers.
It is also a better alternative to human milk than cow milk. "The lactose content of horse milk and human milk is similar," Park says. Horse milk also contains comparable milk sugar levels.
"[Mare] milk would be, on the whole a more suitable nourishment for human infants compared to cow milk," Park's book states.
Like horses, reindeer have also been a source of both milk and meat for humans. Reindeer herding has existed in the northern part of Eurasia for thousands of years. While milking was largely abandoned in the early 1900s, remnants of the practice can be found still in southeastern Siberia and by the Sami people, an indigenous group found in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia
Reindeer milk can be drunk fresh, often diluted with water and used in tea and coffee, or fermented into a sour cream. It has a low amount of lactose, which actually works well for the Sami people, who are generally lactose intolerant.
To preserve the reindeer milk, "[they would store] the milk on cool sites in wooden containers for use the next winter or during spring migration," Park's book states. "The milk curdled, and often they mixed it with tasty herbs. The milk was also stored by freezing it, and it was sometimes mixed with berries."
Reindeer dairy allegedly has anti-diarrheal properties, and the fat derived from reindeer cheese was once used to cure frostbites.
It's also quite easy to make cheese from reindeer milk.
"[It] curdles quickly, and the curdle is highly elastic and can be handled almost like a dough, easing the cheese production, both fresh and dried," the book says. "The taste of the cheese is delicious and distinctly different from fresh cheese made from cow, goat, or sheep milk."
As far as health considerations go, Park notes that camel milk is among one of the most therapeutic milks out there. He is especially fond of the camel. "Camels are one of the most adaptable animals out there," he says. "They don't have to drink water for a month."
But it's not just their resilience that's worth commending—it's also the antiviral properties of their milk. Raw camel milk has been shown to prevent rotavirus infections (which causes deadly diarrhea).
In Kazakhstan, camel milk is called shubat. One scientific study of shubat found that that beverage had antiviral properties against viruses associated with respiratory ailments and diseases like measles and mumps.
Shubat is also used to treat tuberculosis in India, Libya, and Kazakhstan. In the former USSR, it was reported that it helped improve the conditions of people suffering from chronic hepatitis.
Non-bovine milks also outshine cow milk when it comes to nutrient density. Yak milk can have twice as much fat as that of cows. In China, the Tibetans and Kyrgyz nomads produce yak dairy on the regular. Yak milk is consumed habitually. For Tibetans, yak butter is a food staple—often stirred into tea or mixed with highland barley to form a paste called tsampa.
The yogurt is significantly creamier than cow yogurt. The cheese, however, isn't for everyone. When I sampled yak cheese, made fresh by a Kyrgyz nomadic woman in Western China, I found it to be quite sour and foul. It's made into a cube and is rock hard—meant to be a portable snack.
Yak dairy, however, is a growing industry in China.
"Demand for yak milk products exceeds production," Park's book states. "Yak cheese has a well-established market in tourist areas and provides an opportunity to generate a sustainable income."
I was disappointed to find that Park's handbook doesn't contain much information on bear milk, as it is not historically consumed by humans. But there was a study that found polar bear milk to be creamy with a strong fishy odor, while "the grizzly milk was pale yellow and had the consistency of thick cream and the odor of fresh bovine milk."
The more you know.
When it comes down to it, Park claims, goat milk is our best alternative.
Goat milk is consumed by more people around the world than any other milk and has become a dairy staple for the poor and subsistence farmers.
Generally, goats are more adaptable and can survive in harsh and poor environmental conditions, from deserts to icy mountains. Their milk is generally easier to digest than cow's milk and has higher amounts of vitamin A.
Also, compared to the cow, goats have a lower carbon footprint. When eating grass, they don't tear out the root system of the plants and they require less space than cattle.
"This is why goat is called 'poor man's cow,'" Park says.
Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Follow along with us here.