Georgofili World

Newsletter of the Georgofili Academy

Donkey’s milk and its nutritional properties

The breeding of donkeys for the production of drinking milk has been coming back into fashion in recent years, helping to save a genetic heritage. It has been known since antiquity that donkey’s milk was the most similar to human milk. It was extremely beneficial to infants and an adult’s diet, but its production was assigned a secondary role in breeding. The use of donkey’s milk was already known to the Egyptians and bas-reliefs from that time show it was given to children or used as a remedy for various disorders. Greeks considered it a drug and Hippocrates of Kos recommended donkey’s milk for its therapeutic qualities, especially for skin diseases. Theophrastus also recommended it for baths to treat inflamed skin, as the milk enzymes encouraged the restoration of its acidity. Romans considered it a delicious drink and Galen, a supporter of natural substances in medicine, used donkey’s milk for treatments. Its beneficial characteristics and use in cosmetics were known to Queen Cleopatra, who used to bathe in donkey’s milk to keep her skin soft. Poppaea and Messalina knew of its youth-giving properties and, imitating Cleopatra, bathed in the milk that Pliny the Elder thought made the skin softer and whiter. Messalina also loved these baths for their anti-wrinkle effect. This folk tradition of using donkey’s milk for feeding newborns as well as its nutritional, therapeutic and cosmetic qualities was handed down in Europe, but also in Asia and Africa. In the Middle Ages, donkey’s milk was considered an elixir of youth and a remedy for the health of the sick, the old, and the rich middle class. Francis I of France used it for stress and fatigue. In 18th century France, many donkey stables were set up and experiments were conducted under medical control on the breast feeding of newborns directly from a donkey’s breast. A doctor prescribed it as a medicine for Madame de Pompadour. In the 1800s, donkey’s milk was milked and sold door-to-door in Paris and London. Towards the end of the 19th century, some donkey’s milk medical centers were opened in Germany, Austria and Switzerland thanks to experiments carried out at the Universities of Basel and of Magdeburg. In Russia the consumption of donkey’s milk was suggested as a way to compensate for the lack of vitamins A, B and C due to the low consumption of fruit and vegetables. There is a plaque on the house in Palermo where Gaetano Vitale (1880–1952) lived and produced donkey’s milk for the needy children. 
After the stagnation after the war, there was a revival of interest in donkey’s milk, beginning in 1990 with new donkeys’ farms being established for milk production. Now a niche product, it could provide an alternative to the abandoning of land.  In fact, donkey's milk is a sensible food for children as a replacement for breast milk. Considered the most similar to a woman’s (except for the fat level), it is lighter and more digestible than cow’s milk. Some peptides with an activity similar to that of human milk make it possible for it to be consumed by children with an intolerance to cow milk proteins or with digestion problems, becoming a fundamental part of the diet if breast feeding is not advised. In fact cow’s milk is not always tolerated by suckling children as some of its proteins, especially caseins and ß-lactoglobulin, that are absorbed almost intact, can be perceived as foreign proteins by a sensitive organism. Moreover, in a newborn’s diet, the introduction of donkey's milk is justified by the chemical-bromatological profile similar to that of human milk. The only difference is the reduced lipid content in comparison to cow’s milk but it is rich in polyunsaturated fats, especially omega 3 and 6. Moreover, it is also a dietary supplement for the elderly and is preferred to hydrolyzed vegetable proteins (soy) that, in addition to the risk of reactivity in sensitive individuals, have an unpleasant taste and high cost. It has also been pointed out that the use of donkey’s milk is recommended for countering stomach acid, promoting the growth of intestinal flora, calming coughs and pertussis (a.k.a. whooping cough), preventing anemia and atherosclerosis, and for use in the treatment of immune-mediated disorders.
For 2000 years, donkey's milk has been talked about as an elixir of life. Today, it is used to encourage skin hydration to counter the effects of aging. It promotes fibroblast activity and endogenously produced collagen as a scaffold to support the skin, and increases protection against free radicals. Donkey’s milk acts on such skin disorders as nerve-related psoriasis, eczema, and acne; it promotes the healing of wounds. The cosmetics industry uses it to prepare soaps that are capable of making the skin extra radiant and softer.