KARACHI – During the evening rush hour in central Karachi, Nadeem Mutloob can barely keep up with demand at his curbside milk bar, a popular stop for workers on their way home. Customers line up for cool bottles of what Mutloob and some medical researchers tout as an unbeatable health supplement: camel milk, or, as the label says, “the world’s next superfood.”
Mutloob and others believe camel milk can treat a range of ailments, including liver problems, hepatitis and diabetes. But it has other uses, too. “I use it for ‘man power,’ ” quipped Mohammad Ashfaq, a gas station employee, referring to virility.
There may be something to the hype over the nostrum. Camel milk has three times more Vitamin C than cow milk and is a rich source of iron. It is often used by diabetics and hepatitis patients.
Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, is at the center of a trend that has been imported from Africa and the Middle East. Several camel milk vendors have set up shop in the past year or so. But the white frothy liquid’s resemblance to its bovine equivalent does not extend to its flavor or its price.
“Tastes salty,” said Syed Sanaullah, proprietor of the Al-habib shop, when asked to describe the beverage. He said camel milk costs nearly five times more than regular milk because of shortages in supply — about $3.60 per kilogram locally, while regular milk fetches just 80 cents.
But customers who can afford it continue to purchase the milk because they are convinced of its efficacy. Drinking camel milk is becoming more prevalent, Sanaullah said, because “hakeems,” or local healers, encourage the practice.
Most of Mutloob’s customers stop in on the way back from work to pick up a supply to take home — but many also just crack open the sealed single-serve bottles and gulp the contents down on the sidewalk, wiping away milk mustaches before collecting their change and hustling off to brave the evening commute.
Nomadic Bedouins have relied on camel milk as a staple for eons. The animals are known for their ability to produce milk even under harsh desert conditions.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has noted the commercial value of camel dairy products, saying they could provide nomadic herders “a rich source of income.” The organization estimates a potential world market of $10 billion for the product.
The FAO also noted that doctors are prescribing camel milk to patients in Russia, Kazakhstan and India, and may be recommending it for people living with AIDS in Africa.
Seven years ago, the U.N. entity recognized the potential for a camel milk boom, and in some markets around the globe it appears to be coming to pass. Somalia and Saudi Arabia are the biggest producers of camel milk.
Although consumption has risen in cosmopolitan Karachi, elsewhere in Pakistan, including Islamabad, the idea is still catching on. There, sellers have been seen parking the lumbering creatures by the side of the road near bustling shopping centers. While the bottled product is boiled or pasteurized, these dairy entrepreneurs sell the milk in plastic bags — or offer fresh squirts directly from the source.