Cleopatra supposedly took a daily bath in milk supplied by a herd of some 700 lactating donkeys. How she hit upon this idea isn’t known, but the legendary beauty may have been familiar Hippocrates’ recommendation that donkey milk was an effective treatment for fever, liver problems, joint pain and poisoning. If it was good for the inside, maybe it was good for the outside as well! Since donkeys don’t produce much milk, lots of lactating females are needed to fill a bathtub.
Should you contemplate following in Cleopatra’s footsteps and plunking yourself in a leisurely bath of donkey milk, you would need the riches of an Egyptian queen. Donkey milk goes for about forty dollars a liter! And you’ll have to travel quite a distance to find it. Specialty shops in Cyprus sell it for its supposed health benefits with scant evidence. A researcher at the Cyprus University of Technology did follow people who drank donkey milk for months and found they reported improvement with asthma, coughs, eczema and psoriasis. Not exactly a clinical trial, but interesting, given that of any mammal, donkey milk is the closest in composition to human milk which is known to help build an infant’s immune system. Like humans, and unlike cows, donkeys have only one stomach and don’t rely on as large a variety of bacteria to digest their food as do cows with their complex four-stomach fermentation process. Initial studies also point to more active anti-bacterial agents in donkey milk.
Such bits of anecdotal evidence often excite marketers who are on the lookout for a product that can be promoted as the newest miracle elixir. They got unexpected support from of all people, Pope Francis, who revealed that he was fed donkey milk as a baby. Still, donkey milk itself is not likely to take off due to its cost, but donkey milk products may get a boost. Cosmetics that contain the milk and soaps made from the fat in the milk are available. And they have their fans with people claiming that beard itchiness and eczema on hands clear up with the use of donkey milk soap.
While taking baths in donkey milk is far-fetched, in Australia, “bath milk” can be purchased, usually in health food stores. It is actually raw cow’s milk and isn’t really intended to be used for bathing. Rather this seems to be an attempt to get around the ban of selling unpasteurized milk. Raw milk enthusiasts claim that pasteurization destroys nutrients in milk, leads to lactose intolerance, allergic reactions and destruction of beneficial bacteria. They furnish anecdotes about raw milk miraculously clearing up asthma, eczema and tooth decay. Interestingly enough, a study that followed almost a thousand infants in Europe found a roughly 30% reduced incidence of colds, respiratory tract and ear infections associated with drinking raw milk. The researchers conclude that “if the health hazards of raw milk could be overcome, the public health impact of minimally processed but pathogen-free milk might be enormous, given the high prevalence of respiratory infections in the first year of life.” That “but,” though is a big one. Milk needs to be heated to 72 degrees C for 15 seconds to destroy pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli O157:H7.
A tragic case highlighting the importance of pasteurization occurred in Australia last year with five children falling ill and one dying after drinking raw milk that had been sold as “bath milk.” Such products are sold there in containers similar to regular milk and are often placed near regular milk in stores. Even though, as required by law, the label states that the milk is not for human consumption, it is clear that people who buy bath milk are not using it to fill their bathtubs. To remedy the situation, Australia has now passed a law stipulating that “bath milk” must either be pasteurized or be treated with a bittering agent that makes it unsuitable for drinking.
The law is predictably opposed by raw milk advocates who say that “you are allowed to smoke cigarettes and eat junk foods but you are not allowed to drink raw milk.” They say there should be a freedom of choice. Canada offers no such freedom, all sales of raw milk are banned. In the U.S., milk sales are under state jurisdiction and some, like California, allow retail sales. Supposedly raw milk there comes from farms where farmers somehow assure their animals do not produce contaminated milk. Presumably they would also be allowed to sell unpasteurized donkey milk. And in California there would probably be a market.