Last night a journalist asked me about the relative digestibility of goat milk cheese: was it true that goat milk cheeses are easier to digest, and if so was it because they contain less lactose?
Love those questions…
Yes and no. Goat milk cheeses may be a little easier to digest but not because they contain less lactose. All the many comparisons among the three major dairy animals’ milks average out to the conclusion that goat milk has just a little less lactose than cow or sheep. The averages I see for cow and sheep milks are around 4.8% of total weight, with goat milks averaging about 4.5%. However this is the milk, and not the cheese. The lactose is what ferments in the production of cheese. The cultures added at the beginning of cheesemaking is what starts the fermentation process, the digestion of the lactose by lactic acid bacteria, so named because of the by-product of the fermentation, lactic acid. In this first step of cheesemaking (which in many ways overlaps with other steps of the process) much of the lactose is lost. When the whey is drained off, most of the remaining lactose goes with it. This leaves a lactose-reduced curd from which most all cheeses are made. This fermentation process continues at a slow pace until the cheese, no matter the species, becomes virtually lactose-free. As for the relative digestibility of goat milk, we cannot credit the lactose factor. A goat milk cheese could actually have more lactose than a cheese made from the milk of cow or sheep.
If it is not the lactose, what is it that might make goat milk cheeses easier on the tummy than the others?
The strongest case for goat milk cheese digestibility is the relative size of the fat globules. Fat globules in goat milk are smaller than cow, about the same size as sheep. A smaller fat globule will cross the stomach lining more easily than a larger one. The stomach has to work a little harder to break down a bigger globule. Yet this is also relative and dependent upon other factors. As fats metabolize the size of the globule is less important. The metabolism of fats starts at the beginning of the cheesemaking process, making them easier to digest – one reason why an aged cheese may be easier on the tummy than a younger one. Different breeds of goat will have different sized globules too. This does not mean that goat milk cheeses are necessarily less fattening. The fat globules in goat milk may be smaller than cow milk but there are more of them.
Another point of digestibility is something that may be quite different from what occurs in the stomach but after the milk is broken down and absorbed into the blood stream, or in some cases, even before the milk makes it way into the stomach. This would be an issue of tolerance, not lactose intolerance, but tolerance of certain caseins – the proteins found in dairy animals’ milk. This intolerance of certain proteins (found mostly in new cow breeds) is sometimes called cow milk allergy, or CMA.
Goat milk cheeses have a lot going for them anyway, regardless of the relative ease of digestion and tolerance. Goat milk cheeses have many fans. As a group they are similar to sheep in some ways but quite different in others. The milks of both of these small ruminants have relatively higher amounts of short chain fatty acids, beneficial in some ways but their “animal” aromatics problematic for some people. One consideration on behalf of goat milk, as well as sheep, as well as another species’ milk, is the relative amounts of nutrients in the different milks. For example, a sheep milk cheese may have a little more vitamin B2, while a similarly made cow milk cheese may have more folic acid – a good argument for including a variety of cheese types in your week.
There are many styles of goat milk cheeses available today; it’s not just fresh chèvre in a plastic wrap. If this is the only goat milk cheese a goat-cheese abhorrer has ever experienced, then it is understandable that they may avoid them.
I will be a judge at the American Dairy Goat Association competition October 15th & 16th, this year in North Carolina. Last time I helped in the ADGA judging I got to sample over 200 goat cheeses in two days! Yum!
You might say: I’ll get my goat.
- Max McCalman