“Milk from cows doesn’t figure significantly in any Blue Zones diet except that of some Adventists [in Loma Linda, California],” Buettner says in a blog post. This doesn’t (cheese lovers, I repeat, doesn’t) mean that dairy is totally out of the question. Simply put: It just won’t be coming from cows. Buettner notes that the two most popular types of dairy in the Blue Zones are sheep and goat milk.
Ahead we delve into the benefits of these two kinds of milk with the help of a registered dietitian who lays out why they may be just as good, if not better, than their cow counterpart.
How people in the Blue Zones consume dairy
When researching the dietary habits of some of the longest-living people in the world, Buettner discovered a few similarities among them, one being that folks in these communities tend to consume dairy in very small quantities. This is why the researcher often recommends reducing the monthly intake of dairy for the most part. As a rule of thumb, the longevity expert recommends consuming dairy products no more than a few times weekly.
Now, in terms of how the milk is consumed, Buettner says it typically isn’t straight from a glass. Instead, goat and sheep milk undergo some form of fermentation to form other delicious dairy products. “Interestingly, most goat milk is consumed not as liquid but fermented as yogurt, sour milk, or cheese,” he says. Full-fat, naturally fermented yogurt with no added sugars is especially prominent in the two Mediterranean Blue Zones: Ikaria, Greece and Sardinia, Italy.
But Buettner says he didn’t conclusively determine a direct correlation between eating these two kinds of milk and longevity through his research—or if other factors were at play, such as climbing up and down hilly terrain to retrieve the milk from these animals, that may help further boost signs of healthy aging.
So, how do sheep and goat milk stack up against cow milk?
Lauren Manaker, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Charleston, points out that several nutritional differences and similarities arise when comparing the three types of dairy. On the similarities front, she says all are great sources of essential nutrients, including protein, calcium, and vitamins. Additionally, from a nutritional standpoint, Manaker doesn’t find any significant dietary differences between them.
Now, in terms of dissimilarities, the most evident are differences in taste and smell. On its own, goat milk has a sweet and mostly neutral flavor with no strong aftertaste or odor, while sheep milk is also subtly sweet—which is similar to cow’s milk. However, when turned into cheese, you may notice that goat cheese has a tart and tangy flavor with a soft, almost spreadable texture, while sheep cheese is similar in texture but slightly smokier and sweeter in taste. On the other hand, cheeses made from cow’s milk tend to be earthier or nuttier.
Another big difference between the three in question is the ease of digestibility—and switching from cow to sheep and/or goat milk can have some big-time benefits on your gut.
Which type of milk is easiest to digest?
To better understand the “tolerance factor” of these different types of milk, Manaker suggests visualizing them in their cheese form. “Cheeses made from cow’s milk can be firmer than those made from goat and sheep milk,” she says. “This is, in part, a result of the way the curds form during the cheesemaking process when acid is combined with certain proteins found in the milk,” she says.
When we consume milk, our stomach acids react similarly with the milk proteins, meaning that “softer” curds will form when consuming goat milk versus “harder” ones when consuming cow’s milk due to the differences in protein structures. This, in turn, affects how easily it can be digested, Manaker says. (Read: Goat and sheep milk may be easier on the stomach.)
Durae Hardy, the brand manager at Laura Chenel, a premium American goat cheese company, also notes that goat milk is “A2 dominant,” meaning that the protein can be easier to digest due to its amino acid composition. Additionally, she says that yogurts and cheeses made from goat milk can sometimes have lower lactose content than their cow’s milk counterparts. Buettner also points out that goat milk contains lactose, as well as lactase, an enzyme that helps the body digest lactose—which may help make it easier to digest.
That said, those with lactose intolerances should still tread carefully. “Cow’s milk dairy alternatives can still contain lactose,” Manaker says. “The difference lies in the protein structure, which may be why some people tolerate one over the other and why some folks may mistake their difficulty digesting cow’s milk protein for lactose intolerance.”
Either way, she suggests ensuring that the milk or dairy products bought always come from a pasteurized source to reduce the risk of contamination. “The CDC has stated that raw dairy products are 840 times more likely to cause illness than pasteurized dairy products,” she says.
What are some of the best ways to consume goat and sheep milk?
Manaker says there’s a wide variety of sheep and goat milk products that you can incorporate into your diet. “Pasteurized sheep or goat milk isn’t the only way to go,” she explains. “You can also try yogurt, cheese, and even some ice creams, made with these dairy ingredients,” she says. The only thing to keep in mind is that the consistency can vary among them due to differences in their protein structures.
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