comments_image Comments

Why American Milk Might Be Worse For You Than Milk in Other Parts of the World

Are you drinking the wrong milk?
 
 
Share
 

The following peice first appeared on Mother Jones. For more great content, click here to subscribe. 

When my in-laws moved from India to the United States some 35 years ago, they couldn't believe the low cost and abundance of our milk—until they developed digestive problems. They'll now tell you the same thing I've heard a lot of immigrants say: American milk will make you sick.

It turns out that they could be onto something. An emerging body of research suggests that many of the 1 in 4 Americans who exhibit symptoms of lactose intolerance could instead be unable to digest A1, a protein most often found in milk from the high-producing Holstein cows favored by American and some European industrial dairies. The A1 protein is much less prevalent in milk from Jersey, Guernsey, and most Asian and African cow breeds, where, instead, the A2 protein predominates.

"We've got a huge amount of observational evidence that a lot of people can digest the A2 but not the A1," says Keith Woodford, a professor of farm management and agribusiness at New Zealand's Lincoln University who wrote the 2007 book Devil in the Milk: Illness, Health, and the Politics of A1 and A2 Milk. "More than 100 studies suggest links between the A1 protein and a whole range of health conditions"—everything from heart disease to diabetes to autism, Woodford says, though the evidence is far from conclusive.

For more than a decade, an Auckland-based company called A2 Corporation has been selling a brand of A2 milk in New Zealand and Australia; it now accounts for 8 percent of Australia's dairy market. In 2012, A2 Corp. introduced its milk in the United Kingdom through the Tesco chain, where a two-liter bottle sells for about 18 percent more than conventional milk.

A2 Corp. recently announced plans to offer its milk in the United States in coming months.

But critics write off the success of A2 Corp. as a victory of marketing over science. Indeed, a 2009  review by the European Food Safety Authority found no link between the consumption of A1 milk and health and digestive problems. So far, much of the research on the matter is funded by A2 Corp., which holds a patent for the only genetic test that can separate A1 from A2 cows. And  in 2004, the same year that A2 Corp. went public on the New Zealand Stock Exchange, Australia's Queensland Health Department fined its marketers $15,000 for making false and misleading claims about the health benefits of its milk.

The A1/A2 debate has raged for years in Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Europe, but it is still virtually unheard of across the pond. That could soon change: A2 Corp. recently announced plans to offer its milk in the United States in coming months.  In a letter to investors, the company claims that "consumer research [in Los Angeles] confirms the attractiveness of the A2 proposition."

The difference between A1 and A2 proteins is subtle: They are different forms of  beta-casein, a part of the curds (i.e., milk solids ) that make up about 30 percent of the protein content in milk. The A2 variety of beta-casein mutated into the A1 version several thousand years ago in some European dairy herds. Two genes code for beta-casein, so modern cows can either be purely A2, A1/A2 hybrids, or purely A1. Milk from goats and humans contains only the A2 beta-casein, yet not everyone likes the flavor of goat milk,  which also contains comparatively less vitamin B-12—a nutrient essential for creating red blood cells.

 
See more stories tagged with: