It would appear that, when it comes to babies, I'm subject to the bus-stop principle. No sooner had I got pregnant than along came several friends reporting that they were on the baby conveyor belt as well. The result is that as a young mother of a seven-month-old mini force of nature, I seem be spending more than a few coffee mornings discussing the rights, wrongs, dangers and perils of buggies, weaning, sleeping, crying, inoculations and the pros and cons of infant formula.
Debate rages on the benefits and drawbacks of non-dairy (cow's milk) formula. In the US, activist mums such as Jenny McCarthy, the partner of the actor Jim Carrey, are denouncing dairy as the enemy, while in the UK, outspoken vegans such as Heather Mills are put to trial over the potential damage that non-dairy formula could have on their babies. My challenge is to persuade my budget-minded husband that a goat's milk formula that is shipped in from New Zealand at more than twice the price of our local offering is, indeed, worth it.
Well, let's examine the case for conventional formula milk, or infant formula, as it is known in the US. Despite the fact that breast milk is considered the ideal food for babies, at least to six months of age, the majority - 60 per cent - of western babies are weaned by two months. A quarter of American babies are on formula within two days of birth. Studies have shown that the risks associated with formula can include ear-tract infections, stomach problems and respiratory tract infections.
According to proponents of goat's milk, the big advantage is that it contains fewer allergenic proteins. The proteins in goat's milk bind to stomach acids and form smaller "curds" that are more easily digested in a baby's tummy. Yet according to the American health-care project Assuring Pediatric Nutrition in the Hospital & Community, "goat's milk is not indicated for use in pregnancy". Reasons quoted include the fact that goat's milk is deficient in folic acid and vitamin B6. It is also higher in protein than human milk and conventional infant formula and thus may put a child at risk from dehydration. The European Food Safety Authority concluded that "there was no convincing data, either in the literature or submitted, to support the belief that the incidence of allergic reactions is lower when feeding goat's-milk-based formula compared to cow's milk-based formula".
The goat camp kicks back with its own evidence. It cites that problems with lactose intolerance and cow's milk allergies are the two main reasons why mothers to look for alternatives to cow-derived products. Although the two are often mixed up, lactose intolerance and allergy are distinct conditions. Allergy is due to a protein allergen while lactose intolerance is due to carbohydrate sensitivity.
Part of the challenge lies in the fact that the difference between cow's milk and goat's milk may not seem apparent upon first examination. A closer look, however, reveals several key factors that play an integral part in why a parent may wish to look at goat's milk products as an alternative. It is said that the most common food allergy for children under three is cow's milk. Mild symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea and skin rashes are common. The reaction can be blamed on a protein allergen known as alpha s1-casein found in high levels in cow's milk. The levels of alpha s1-casein in goat's milk are about 89 per cent less than cow's milk, providing a far less allergenic food.
On the question of lactose, all milk contains certain levels of it, which is also known as "milk sugar". A relatively large portion of the population suffers from a deficiency (not an absence) of an enzyme known as lactase that is used to digest lactose. This deficiency results in a condition known as lactose intolerance, a fairly common ailment, especially in African and Asian populations. The theory goes that because goat's milk (or goat's milk formula) contains less lactose than cow's milk formula, it is easier to digest for those suffering from lactose intolerance. Yet, the margin of difference in lactose levels is only about 10 per cent. A newer hypothesis is rather that since goat's milk is digested and absorbed more easily, there is no "leftover" lactose that remains undigested, which causes the painful and uncomfortable effects of lactose intolerance.
At the heart of it, of course, is the fact that mother's milk is best, for as long as possible; but if a mother has to choose, it is always worth looking at goat's milk as an alternative to the conventional infant formula route.