Milk is an essential dietary component in many parts of the world, providing a significant amount of nutrients (including fats) that are necessary for our daily lives.
However, not all milk is the same. The composition of milk can vary greatly, depending on the source, animal breed, and even the time of year.
Sheep milk is a lesser-known dairy alternative in New Zealand. Despite its popularity in other countries like Greece and Italy, sheep milk hasn’t (yet) gained as much traction here.
Sheep milk has a unique taste that is creamier and sweeter than cow’s milk, and it is also higher in good fats and protein.
Additionally, some people who are lactose intolerant may find that they can tolerate sheep milk better than cow’s milk.
While sheep milk is not as widely consumed as cow’s milk in New Zealand, it is a viable option for those looking for a different type of dairy alternative.
Here, we’ll focus on understanding the fat content of sheep milk in comparison to other types of animal milk, and the reasons why there is a growing interest in sheep milk.
Nutritional Composition of Sheep Milk Fat and Potential Health Benefits
Before we compare the fat content of sheep milk to milk from other animals, it’s important to understand the different types of fat, including which fats are considered beneficial.
Research shows that fat is a necessary and important part of a healthy diet. It’s essential to choose foods with “good” fats, limit foods high in saturated fat, and avoid “bad” fat.
Good Fats Vs Bad Fats
Good fats are unsaturated, poly- and mono-, and are the fats that are liquid at room temperature.
They’re considered “good” for us because they do all sorts of valuable things like help to improve blood cholesterol levels, ease inflammation, and stabilise heart rhythms.
As examples you’ve likely heard of, Omega-3 and Omega-6 are polyunsaturated fats.
Bad fats are trans fats, aka trans fatty acids, and need to be limited in our diet.
Some trans fats occur naturally in foods like beef and dairy products, but it’s the artificial ones that we need to closely watch!
Artificial trans fats are created by heating liquid vegetable oils with hydrogen gas and a catalyst ingredient. This process is called hydrogenation.
Hydrogenated products include margarine, shortening, and oils commonly used in processed foods including biscuits, potato/corn chips etc.
Saturated fats fall somewhere in between “good” and “bad” as what’s most important is the total amount you consume.
They’re mostly found in animal products and plant foods like nuts, coconuts, soybeans etc.
The Fat Content of Sheep Milk (Sheep Milk Fat Percentage)
While sheep milk has a higher total fat content (approximately 7%) than cow or goat milk (both around 4%), the types of fat they contain are different.
The fat content of sheep milk contains more healthy fats, such as medium-chain triacylglycerols and polyunsaturated fatty acids and phospholipids, that can help prevent various diseases.
The table below compares the sheep milk fat percentage to cow and goat milk. Worth noting is the higher percentage of linoleic, linolenic, and conjugated linoleic acids.
It also contains a type of fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of omega-6, which is believed to have cancer-fighting and immune-boosting properties and can help with weight loss by reducing body fat deposits and increasing fat burning.
If you’re into fitness, bodybuilding, or weight loss supplements, you might be familiar with CLA, however, CLA supplements don’t provide the same health effects as CLA obtained from food.
Studies have shown that people who get a lot of natural CLA from their diet are at a lower risk of various diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Other Fatty Acids
Biochemistry is a complicated subject, so, for the sake of simplicity, long-chain fatty acids are harder for us to digest than short- or medium-chain ones are.
While sheep milk contains almost twice as much total milk fat as cow milk, it has a higher proportion of medium-chain fatty acids e.g. caproic, caprylic and capric acids.
In contrast, cow milk contains mostly long-chain fatty acids and has higher amounts of saturated fat.
Compared to other animal milk such as goats and cows, sheep milk has the lowest amounts of lauric, myristic, and palmitic acids.
All three of these saturated fatty acids are associated with negative effects on human health such as increasing concentrations of low-density lipoprotein (LDLs) in the blood.
LDLs lead to plaque deposits in arteries (atherosclerosis) which, in turn, can cause clots, strokes, angina, heart attacks etc.
This difference in fatty acid composition is caused by the diet and feeding patterns of the animals, and as such, these differences are far more pronounced in countries outside New Zealand where the animals aren’t predominantly grass-fed.
While not technically fat, cholesterol, like fat, is a type of lipid. Another difference between sheep milk and cow milk is its cholesterol content.
According to a study published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, sheep milk has a lower concentration of cholesterol than standard cow milk.
A cholesterol concentration of 20.58 mg/dL was observed in bovine milk with a concentration of 17.07 ± 1.18 mg/dL in ovine milk.
This means that sheep milk could be a better option for those who are concerned about their cholesterol levels, particularly anyone with diabetes, high cholesterol, or heart disease.
How Fat Affects Milk Taste and Scent
The fat content of sheep milk plays a crucial role in its overall flavour, texture, and creaminess. As we’ve mentioned, sheep milk has a higher fat content compared to cow and goat milk, which gives it a richer and creamier mouthfeel.
As for taste, we have another article covering what sheep milk tastes like here, but essentially, sheep milk has a very subtle, almost sweet flavour that isn’t too dissimilar from cow milk and is milder in taste than goat milk.
Additionally, its creaminess makes it an excellent ingredient for making cheese, yoghurt, and other dairy products, as well as baking.
Even the aroma of milk is attributed to the content and composition of milk fat. The medium-chain fatty acids, caproic, caprylic and capric acids, are what cause the specific scent of sheep and goat milk.
Overall, the unique qualities of sheep milk make it a desirable option for producing speciality dairy products such as artisanal cheeses and yoghurts and an excellent ingredient for baking.
Sheep milk has a higher total fat content than cow or goat milk, but it contains more “healthy” medium-chain fatty acids that are easier to digest and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of omega-6.
Despite the production and consumption of sheep milk not being widely reported, and there being no centralised database tracking global sheep milk consumption, European, Middle Eastern, and North African countries have a long history of using sheep milk and are known to consume significant quantities of sheep milk and sheep milk products.
Given the various nutritional benefits, sheep milk has the potential to become an important source of nutrition for people in New Zealand and Australia.
If you’d like to give it a try, check out our list of stockists to find one near you or order your sheep milk and cheese online here.
Here are some additional resources for further reading on the fat content of sheep milk:
- https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/cholesterol/ The Nutrition Source
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7284997/ The Comparison of Nutritional Value of Human Milk with Other Mammals’ Milk
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10428978/ Conjugated linoleic acid is a potent naturally occurring ligand and activator of PPARalpha
- https://medlineplus.gov/encyclopedia.html Medical Encyclopedia by MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
- https://www.agresearch.co.nz/our-research/sheep-milk-composition/ Sheep Milk: Milk composition
- Food New Zealand, New Zealand Institute of Food Science and Technology: Lipid profile of New Zealand Sheep Milk (2017)
- https://issuu.com/annescott1/docs/foodnzoctnov2020web Food New Zealand, New Zealand Institute of Food Science and Technology: Differences in sensory profiles of sheep, goat and cow milk (2020)