PITTSBORO - How far would you go for something you believed in?
Empty your savings account? Sell your furniture? Cut back on your day job to devote time to it?
Millie Hinkle, a natural medicine practitioner from Pittsboro, did all of the above.
She has spent three years working to get camel's milk approved for sale across the U.S., started a company called Camel Milk USA and founded the American Camel Coalition to promote legislation to benefit camel owners.
The thing is, she wasn't even that taken with the taste of camel's milk when she first drank it in the 1980s during a trip to Dubai. "It was rather salty-tasting to me. I have to say I never thought another thing about it," she said.
In late 2008, a health magazine article about camel's milk got her thinking about that experience, and craving another taste.
When Hinkle discovered it was illegal to sell camel's milk in the U.S., she became determined to get it approved by the Food and Drug Administration for sale across state lines.
Hinkle testified before the FDA's Committee on Interstate Milk Shipments in Orlando, Fla., in April 2009 and helped get camel's milk put under laws governing the sale of milk, allowing states to govern its sale. For instance, in North Carolina, milk sold must be pasteurized, although no one is currently selling camel's milk in the state, she said. In South Carolina, milk can be sold raw.
Her ultimate quest is for the laws to allow the commercial sale of camel's milk across state lines. Hinkle said she is on the verge of making it happen, working with the FDA to ensure consistent quality of camel's milk, by making standardized test kits that detect pathogens and antibiotic residue in it.
Hinkle expects the test kits to be ready in August. Then, she said, farmers could certify that their milk is germ free, safe and get approval for it to be sold in supermarkets and across state lines.
Hinkle said farmers are selling fresh camel's milk for about $40 a quart, given that camels cost at least $15,000 here and produce only about five quarts a day, half of what a cow produces. Camels, unlike cows, are also not as cooperative about being milked, Hinkle said.
Camels' lopsided demographics increase the challenge. According to Hinkle, 60 percent of the camel population is usually male, and a female camel needs to be around four or five years of age before it can be bred and produce milk. She estimated that there might be around 3,000 camels in the country.A cheaper alternative might be powdered camel's milk, Hinkle said. Imported from Europe, it could soon be sold in health food stores at around half the price of fresh camel's milk, according to Hinkle.Curative properties?
What drives Hinkle is a belief in the curative properties of camel's milk.
Based on small studies in India, Israel and Saudi Arabia, she believes camel's milk holds the key to curing ailments such as cancer, diabetes, autism and Crohn's disease, due to its high insulin content and antibacterial and antiviral properties due to the lactoferrin in camel's milk.
Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, president of Health Care & Education at the American Diabetes Association, differs.
"We know quite a bit about how to improve life and health for people with diabetes, and I do not think that camel milk is a particularly useful addition at this point in time to what we already know," said Mayer-Davis, who is also a professor of medicine and nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill.
"Insulin is a large protein and the reason that people do not take insulin orally but take it as a shot is because if you just eat a protein, your stomach will digest that protein. So there's really no merit to the statement that camel's milk contains insulin thinking that that's a way to deliver insulin to a person." Mayer-Davis added. "People with diabetes are a high risk for a lot of important complications, starting with cardiovascular disease. It's a serious disease and people with diabetes really need to be working with their healthcare providers to address their particular health risks appropriately."
Hinkle also said that studies show lactose-intolerant individuals could easily digest camel milk.
Not so, said Susan Totten, diabetes educator at Duke University Medical center. "A common misunderstanding is that many sufferers of lactose intolerance can tolerate camel's milk, yet lactose is present in the milk. Composition charts show a range of 3.3 to 5.0 percent lactose," Totten said, not significantly different from cow's milk's range of 3.7 to 5.1 percent.Camel-milk believer
Notwithstanding, Bridget Soots, whose 6-year-old son Caiden was diagnosed with severe autism in 2008, is a believer of camel's milk abilities.
Soots, who lives in Mount Airy and discovered camel's milk from Hinkle, was willing to try anything to help her son, so she drove out to an Amish farm in Pennsylvania last year to stock up on two month's supply of camel's milk, at $15 for each 12-ounce bottle.
To her amazement, Soots said she saw an improvement in Caiden's behavior after drinking camel milk regularly. "We could not take him into a restaurant. He would have meltdowns all the time, in the middle of the floor," Soots said. "And now, we can see it, he's very calm, he can sit and have a meal, we can have a conversation." She added that she has also successfully potty-trained him, which was a problem before.
Soots said she did not change any other aspects of her son's treatment, which included speech and occupational therapy. Recently, doctors have confirmed that Caiden's condition has improved to mild autism.
"Even after doing the research, it seems like there's still a lot that is not known about camel's milk and how it would impact somebody," said David Laxton, a spokesman for the Autism Society of North Carolina.
"Families are willing to try a lot of different things," he said. "There's also been times when people have come up with some stuff that they thought would help, and they charged a lot of money for it. And they haven't necessarily helped."
Hinkle remains undeterred. She said seven American universities are doing research on camel's milk, such as the effect of the milk's protein on muscles. "It has been a long struggle up until this point but I think it is really beginning to pay off," she said.