These days, a quick scan of supermarket shelves reveals changes in Americans' milk-drinking habits: While the refrigerated aisle still stocks good ol' moo juice, it's the shelf-stable aisle—packed to the brim with dairy alternatives such as soy, almond, hemp, and flax "milks"—towards which many shoppers gravitate. Since 1975, cow milk consumption has dropped 25 percent, while the market for plant-based substitutes has surged almost 11 percent since 1999.
While much of the change in Americans' cereal-topping preferences can no doubt be attributed to health fads and dietary trends, a significant portion of the population is passing on Bessie's specialty due to legitimate allergies that make it impossible to tolerate milk. About 2.5 percent of children are truly allergic to milk, with possible symptoms as serious as anaphylactic shock; and while most people outgrow this allergy, about 65 percent of adults worldwide report an intolerance to lactose that results in, er, uncomfortable digestive issues.
According to Pierluigi Orunesu, founder of Eurolactis, a donkey milk supplier based in Switzerland that furnishes its home country as well as Italy, France and China with its ass beverage, the reason for the overwhelming presence of lactose intolerance is as simple as this: humans have only one stomach, yet we drink the milk of ruminants, multi-stomached animals such as cows, goats and sheep whose various digestive chambers do an A-plus job of breaking down their naturally hard-to-digest milk. Humans, on the other hand, with our puny one stomach, simply can't break down ruminant milk.
We chatted with Orunesu about his product and got some background on the legacy of donkey milk around the world.
MUNCHIES: So, why donkey milk? How did you get the idea to market this product and who is your target customer? Pierluigi Orunesu: The legacy of donkey milk has been strong here in Europe since Egyptian times—everyone here knows the story of Cleopatra and Nefertiti, the beauties of antiquity, that used to bathe in donkey milk to keep their skin smooth and perfect. This is not just legend—there are concrete testimonials about that. When I started Eurolactis in 2007, we supplied freeze-dried, powdered donkey milk to big cosmetics companies, who still use it as an ingredient in their products. But more and more, we were getting interest from people who suffer from an allergy to the protein in cow milk. This is a big problem, in the US, too. In the Western world, more than four percent of children between 0 and 30 months are born with cow milk protein allergy. Not intolerance—allergy. That means that they can die if they are not fed appropriately. And we have demonstrated, with several clinical surveys, that this milk is naturally hypoallergenic. So from starting mainly with cosmetics, today our company is really focusing on the nutritional and pediatric uses of donkey milk. We deliver to hospitals in Italy, France and Switzerland, and also in Asia, because in Asia there's a longstanding tradition of using donkey milk as an anti-aging beverage. In an antique medical compendium from China, I found five recipes using donkey milk. So one the one side, in Europe, it's for juniors; on the other, in Asia, it's for seniors.
What makes donkey milk easy to digest? A donkey is a monogastric: It has one stomach, like me. So that explains why the milk is hypoallergenic. Ruminants—cows, goats, sheep—have more than one stomach. So the protein gets transformed, and at the end of the digestion process it's not the same as at the beginning. So the protein in donkey milk is the most similar to the protein in human breast milk.
Where do you get the milk? Most of the donkeys that supply our milk are located on one farm in Italy, near Parma. When I went there the first time, in 2007 or 2008, there were about 380 donkeys, and today, thanks to Eurolactis, we manage together about 900 donkeys. We bring a guarantee to collect the milk regularly, and to pay a good, fair price; we've also brought in food safety experts, and we've also brought in the process that transforms the milk from raw milk to freeze-dried, powdered milk.
What does donkey milk taste like? It has a beautiful taste—donkey milk is very light, with a little sweet, almost caramelized taste. You can't really taste that in the powdered version, but when it's fresh it makes quite an impact. We are going to be the first in the world to manufacture a Tetra Pak version of donkey milk that's ready to drink. It's in development right now and should be available by the end of the year.
Do you think donkey milk's popularity will spread? It's not anymore a trend, it's a reality. I am sure that this milk will find its right place under the cosmetic and the nutritional sectors. In USA, it is moving more and more, because half of your population is already a potential customer for us, because you have the elephants and the donkeys as your political symbols.
Good point. But don't you think there's a stigma attached to drinking the milk of an animal called an ass? It depends on where you are. In Turkey, for example, if you say to a woman that she has donkey eyes, it is the most beautiful compliment you can give her. But if you say that to a Moroccan or Tunisian girl, it doesn't work. I don't know about in USA. But in USA if you tell a Democrat that donkey milk is good, then it should be ok, right? This is what I would say.