Sheep's milk has a higher content of essential vitamins and minerals than cow's milk and could be used to cater to consumers' appetite for healthy products. But presently it seems only small-time producers are sizing up the opportunities.
Last week a farm in the south-west of England launched a low-fat ice cream-like product made from whole sheep's milk that is expected to be a hit with people looking for a low-fat, natural, but still tasty alternative to the dessert.
David Baker, owner of Styles Farm, has been making ice cream from sheep's milk for the past 18 years. He explained to NutraIngredients.com that, in order for a frozen product to be labelled as 'ice cream' it must have a fat content of at least five per cent.
Sheep's milk does naturally have a higher fat content than cow's milk, but with his initial offering Baker was adding vegetable fat to bring the level up even further to meet requirements.
Last year, however, he took the bold decision to stop adding the fat and to introduce a product made only from the whole sheep's milk. This means that fat level of the product is lower than regular ice cream, but it still has an acceptable texture and taste. Six per cent sugar is added, together natural stabilisers and emulsifiers.
Although Baker is still offering the regular ice cream, he called the reaction to Slim Ewe "massive". "That is the way it is going at the moment," he said.
With the present trend towards healthier eating, the product is being marketed to the fat-conscious and school markets.
But because of the nutritional properties of sheep's milk when compared to cow's milk, there is a possibility that it could corner a larger share of the health market as a source of essential vitamins and minerals.
Data from the British Sheep Dairying Association shows that although whole sheep's milk has a higher fat content than cow's milk (6.7 to 2.5 per cent), riboflavin B2 is 4.3mg/l to 2.2mg/l, thiamine 1.2mg/l to 0.5mg/l, niacin B1 5.4mg/l to 1.0mg/l, pantothenic acid 5.3mg/l to 3.4mg/l, B6 0.7mg/l to 0.5mg/l, B12 is 0.09mg/l to 0.03mg/l and biotin is 5.0mg/l to 1.7mg/l. Folate content for both is 0.5mg/l.
Calcium content in sheep's milk is between 162 and 259mg/100g compared to 110mg/100g for cow's, and phosphorous, sodium, magnesium, zinc and iron levels are also higher.
Baker explained the greater concentration of nutrients of sheep's milk to cow's milk as being down to the higher percentage of solids - 18.3 per cent, compared to 12.1 per cent.
When it comes to ice cream-like products, this is beneficial since "there is more substance to it, you don't need to add things to it".
Slim Ewe's packaging currently only gives only the values for sodium, calcium, phosphorous, biotin and riboflavin, providing 15 percent of the recommended daily intake in 100ml. But Baker has not yet been able to have the product comprehensively tested for other vitamins.
Although cheese made from sheep's milk - such as Roquefort, Pecorino Romano and feta - is relatively popular, sheep's milk is not nearly so popular and in its fresh form is limited due to seasonally availability.
According to market analyst Mintel, non-cow milks (sheep and goat) currently have a 0.8 per cent share of the white milk market value. The market is growing - but not so much because of the healthy profile (indeed the higher fat content of the milk is a drawback) but because of lower lactose content than cow's milk, making it more suitable for people with a perceived intolerance.
Mintel's Global New Products Database showed up only one sheep's milk launched this year: organic Bio Schafmilch in Switzerland. Four other products were listed, but were introduced to market more than three years ago.
This could be scope for more products using sheep's milk to tempt consumers, but it seems that at the moment it is only small-time producers like Styles Farm that are tapping into it.
For instance, the farmers at Willow Hill Farm in Vermont in the US started producing sheep's yoghurt, initially for their dogs. But after it proved a hit at a local farmers market, they started offering for human consumers too.
Styles Farm has been so successful with its sheep's milk ice cream that it has now had to enlist the services of another farmer, who milks 1000 sheep. In the summer months, the farm employs 45 staff.
It currently does £1m a year in ice cream sales, and Baker believed the farm's image "will grow considerably" with Slim Ewe.
It certainly seems that he has overcome one major problem that has dogged healthy food manufacturers - that of taste. In a recent blind-tasting, three out of four people said they preferred Slim Ewe to regular ice cream.
But demand, of course, means upping production, and Baker may well have to put more sheep on the job - and fast.