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Milk of bovine kindness

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Growing up in Goa in a traditional Konkani family, Namrata Kowshik would always look forward to the time of calving (birth of cattle) at the houses of her help. "The dhobi, cook or cleaning lady kept a cow at home, and no sooner did she gave birth they would distribute her first milk, or colostrum, in the neighbourhood. It was considered inauspicious to feed the calf the first milk. So, we would get the whole of it. My mother would steam it with jaggery and haldi till it achieved a pudding-like consistency. Then, she would cut it in triangles and serve it to the children. It tasted great, " remembers Kowshik, who is now a health writer based in Delhi. In Konkani this sweet dish is called 'geen', and in Marathi it takes the name 'kharvas'.

Feeding bovine colostrum to children and pregnant women, in the form of a savoury or sweet, is an age-old practice in India. The first milk - thick and yellow - expressed by a cow after she delivers a calf, is packed with disease-fighting power of immunoglobulins (anti-bodies ) and has a high concentration of proteins.

It's difficult to establish if the tradition of making colostrum treats is rooted in this scientific logic. Whether or not it is, the dietary supplements industry has certainly wised up to its benefits. In the West it's been five years since cow's 'first milk' started to figure prominently in health supplements. Recently, the food was in the spotlight when athlete Zoe Smith, part of Team Great Britain for Olympics, was reported to be on a diet of bovine colostrum. Though she strongly denied the reports it did create a buzz in the papers. The guilt associated with taking away precious first milk from the calf could be a reason for her vehement denial. But the debate also revealed that many athletes take this form of concentrated milk to beef up their immunity.
The practice is explained by Dr Randhir Hastir, trainer at the National School of Bodybuilding and Fitness in Jalandhar, who says: "The stress of hours of strenuous physical training and strict diet takes a heavy toll on a sportsperson's immunity. He or she could fall prey to infections or skin rashes. These people can benefit a lot from taking colostrum. "

In its natural form colostrum is unstable and difficult to store. But when manufactured commercially, it is chemically treated to extract the essence of its wealth of immunoglobulins and packed into powder and capsule form. Currently, New Zealand is the largest manufacturer of colostrum supplements.

Colostrum supplements - not banned by the International Olympic Committee - also claim to burn fat, build lean muscle, increase stamina and endurance. But these are largely postulations that have very little or no body of scientific research to back them up.

In India this dairy formulation is not commonly found in health supplements. However, recently the Himalaya Drug Company launched HiOwna-Jr, an ayurvedic health drink for children between the ages two and pre-teens, which contains bovine colostrum. "Colostrum powder is made up of almost 60 to 70 per cent protein. While athletes require 15-20 g daily, others can build up a strong immunity by consuming 1-2 g every day, " says Dr Ajay W Tumaney, group leader - functional food development, The Himalaya Drug Company.

But doctors caution that such claims ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. "There have been no controlled trials to prove these benefits in growing children. In my experience colostrum has shown results only in children who suffer from respiratory infections, " says Dr Nitin Verma, senior paediatrics consultant at Max Hospitals, Delhi.

That aside, there are studies being conducted to explore its role in reversing diarrhoea. Its immunity-enhancing function can supposedly plug a leaky gut. Colostrum's primary role - to provide immunity to the newborn - is achieved by strengthening the baby's permeable gut. Proteins present in colostrum are easily absorbed by the infant and the growth agents in it strengthen the gut lining.

Forging ahead with this logic, Prof Raymond Playford, gastroenterologist at Plymouth University in the UK, studied the effect of colostrum on athletes who develop diarrhoea after prolonged periods of extreme physical training and heat because the stress weakens their intestines. "My studies show that this tendency to leakiness increases two- to three-fold during intense exercise, such as the training athletes are undergoing now to get ready for the Olympics. But if they take bovine colostrum for two weeks prior to exercise, the change in gut leakiness is almost completely prevented, " Playford was quoted saying in an article in The Guardian.

Back home, too, scientists have been trying to tap the goodness of this infant food to develop an antidote to diarrhoea in children. Chanda Nimbkar, an animal breeder working at Nimbkar Agriculture Research Institute in Phaltan in Maharashtra, says that a few years ago the institute was approached by the National Institute of Virology to collect colostrum from goats. "They asked us to immunise pregnant goats against rotavirus that causes diarrhoea in children. So that when they kidded and expressed colostrum, it contained powerful anti-bodies to fight diarrhoea. "The colostrum sourced was used in a small clinical trial to see if it has any adverse effects on infants and it showed none. Colostrum from the goats had neutralised the rotavirus. But further studies are required to properly establish this result. 

While we wait for the results to come in, we might as well snack on colostrum in the old fashioned way.

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