Is Goat Milk Better For You?

There's been lots of hype surrounding the benefits of goat milk recently. But is it really better than cow milk? Nutrition Diva explains

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
August 30, 2011
Episode #152

In recent years, goat milk has gone from a fairly rare specialty item to one that’s available in most large grocery stores. And whenever you see an exotic, costly alternative to a mainstream food item, it’s easy to assume that it must be either better—or better for you. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between goat milk and cow milk and what nutritional advantages, if any, goat milk might offer.

How is Goat Milk Different from Cow Milk?

One of the first things you’ll notice is that goat milk is two or three times as expensive as cow milk. Mostly, that’s because it’s still a pretty small niche market, so the goat milk producers don’t enjoy the same economy of scale as those who produce cow milk.  In today’s economy, in order to get me to spend three times as much for something, you’re going to have to convince me that it’s superior in some sort of significant way.

I’m often willing to spend more for something simply because it tastes better, such as really good chocolate.  Goat milk definitely tastes different than cow milk but flavor is purely a matter of preference. I suspect it has a lot to do with what you’re used to. To someone used to drinking cow milk, goat milk can taste sort of funky. Personally, while I enjoy that goat-y taste in cheese, I find it a little off-putting in the glass. But, again, that’s purely subjective. 

Is Goat Milk More Nutritious?

People who sell goat milk often point out that goat milk is higher in protein, vitamin A, calcium, and potassium than cow milk—which it is. Of course, they usually don’t mention that goat milk is lower in folate, B12, selenium, and omega-3.  But it doesn’t really matter; the nutritional differences are all quite small. I’d consider the two to be nutritionally equivalent.

Is Goat Milk Easier to Digest?

For those who are sensitive to even small amounts of lactose, both cow and goat milk would be off limits.

Goat milk is also said to be more digestible and less likely to cause sensitivity or allergy than cow milk.  The claim “more digestible” is a little vague. But let’s take a look at a few of the factors that might come into play. 

- Lactose intolerance   Some people have trouble digesting cow milk because they cannot digest lactose, or milk sugar. People with lactose intolerance can sometimes handle small amounts without any digestive problems. In other words, although a big glass of milk might cause gas or bloating, they might be able to get away with a small glass. Goat milk is slightly lower in lactose than cow milk. For those who can tolerate lactose in small amounts, that may offer a minimal advantage—enabling you to have a few extra sips. But for those who are sensitive to even small amounts of lactose, both cow and goat milk would be off limits. 

- Dairy allergies   Although people often confuse them, being allergic to milk is different than having lactose intolerance. If you have a true milk allergy—which is actually pretty rare in people over the age of 3, it’s not the milk sugar that’s the problem—it’s a milk protein called casein. The casein molecule in cow milk is slightly different than the casein molecule in goat milk. So it’s possible that someone who is allergic to cow milk may be able to tolerate goat milk, and vice versa.  Just remember that allergic reactions can range from mild to life-threatening. If you have a severe allergy to cow milk, I don’t think I’d experiment with goat milk unless I had an allergist—and an epi pen—standing by.

Are the Fats in Goat Milk Healthier?

Although goat milk contains about the same amount of fat as cow milk, the individual fat droplets in goat milk are quite a bit smaller than those in cow milk. That means that the fat doesn’t separate out and float to the top, the way it does in cow milk. As a result, goat milk is usually not homogenized, while almost all commercial cow milk is.

For a while back in the 1970s, there was a theory that drinking homogenized milk might cause or contribute to heart disease. Although this theory lingers on in the Internet rumor mill, it has since been refuted—even by back-to-nature scientists like Mary Enig of Nourishing Traditions fame.  And the idea that homogenized milk is more likely to cause allergies or other adverse reactions has also failed to hold up under scientific scrutiny. However, the fact that goat milk is not homogenized does make it one step less processed than cow milk, for those who like the idea of eating closer to nature. 

And finally, much is made of the fact that the fat in goat milk has more medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, than cow milk.  There has been some interesting research suggesting that this type of fatty acid—which is also found in coconut and palm kernel oil—may promote fat and weight loss. I promise to dedicate an entire episode to MCTs in the near future. For now, let me just say that the amount of MCTs that you’d get by switching from cow milk to goat milk is unlikely to make any noticeable difference in your waistline.

The Bottom Line: Should You Drink Goat Milk?

In my opinion, the minor nutritional differences in goat milk don’t justify the extra cost. If you have lactose intolerance or a mild milk allergy, you might find goat milk to be more tolerable. (Then again you may not.)  And as for the purported benefits of MCTs or the dangers of homogenization, the evidence to support these is pretty slim.  But if you feel better about drinking goat milk, or you have a source for fresh or inexpensive goat milk, or you simply love the way it tastes, it’s a perfectly good alternative to cow milk. 

Goat Milk image courtesy of Shutterstock