I hadn’t really planned on talking about a2 milk but it’s started to show up at a few stores locally and some people were asking me about it. I thought I’d covered so-called “a2” milk here before in depth but a quick search through the archives only turned up a couple of brief comments about it. I know I wrote about it before so either the search failed to turn it up in the archives or I published that piece somewhere else. I suppose it could have been on my defunct Tumblr blog. So I’m going to take a look at it again and if I did publish this before, well, it won’t be the first time I’ve repeated myself. Hey, I’m old. I’m lucky if I can remember my phone number some days.
Now, the news…
Back in mid summer a2 Milk (the company) got itself a new CEO, Jayne Hrdlicka, brought over from Qantas Airways because apparently selling airplane tickets is just like selling milk.
Just two months later, in September, Hrdlicka abruptly sold all of the stock in the company that she owned, some 357,000 shares.
Now when the brand new CEO of a company abruptly sells every single share of the company she heads up, a lot of people sort of stare and go WTF??? The company issued a statement saying that she did so to meet “tax obligations”. And, of course, everyone sort of chuckled and said “yeah, sure she did”. Especially after those people found out that the company’s CFO, Craig Loutit, sold off 150,000 shares in the company a couple of weeks before the CEO did, and, well… Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, when the CFO sells off a large percentage of his shares in the company and the new CEO who has been on the job for only two months sells off all of her shares in the company?
And then came the announcement that Nestle is jumping into the “a2” milk market by selling infant formula based on “a2” milk in China, a major market for the A2 Milk company and…
Well, let’s sum things up here: The CFO of the company sells off a large chunk of stock in the company. Shortly thereafter the new CEO sells all of her stock in the company for “tax obligations”, and a few weeks later Nestle announces it is moving into what had been A2M’s exclusive territory with a virtually identical product… Nope, nothing to see here. Let’s move on, shall we?
What the heck is a2 milk anyway?
There is a lot of different stuff in milk, and some people are sensitive to some of the things in milk or are even outright allergic to some of the components. My oldest son, for example, is mildly lactose intolerant.
So prepare for your eyes to glaze over because I’m about to get all sciencey here for a few minutes. Or you can take a nap until I’m done with this and pick it up when I’m finished with this part.
The biggest problem people have with milk is lactose intolerance. Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk. People who are lactose intolerant are unable to fully digest the lactose in milk, resulting in gas, bloating and even diarrhea after eating dairy products. They don’t make enough of an enzyme called lactase which is needed to digest lactose.
Or is it? Here’s where it starts to get complicated and more than a little controversial.
One of the components of milk is a protein called beta-casein. It is present in significant quantities, making up about 30% of the total proteins in milk. There are two different types of beta-casein, a1 and a2. The only difference between the two is a single amino acid. Beta-casein contains a total of 209 amino acids whether it is a1 or a2 type. The difference is that at position 67, a1 milk has a histidine and a2 has a proline. Now when digested in the small intestine, this histidine may cause the release of a peptide called beta-casomorphine-7 or BCM-7 because that’s a hell of a lot easier to spell. And BCM-7 is what causes the controversy. (I say may produce BCM-7 because there doesn’t seem to be any consistent proof that BCM-7 is even produced in the human digestive system in the first place. But let’s ignore that for the moment.)
Back in the 90s there was a study that indicated that BCM-7 was not a good thing, well, in rats, anyway. There was a claim that it caused diabetes because apparently some rats in the test that were fed a1 milk produced BCM-7 and got diabetes, while rats that weren’t fed the stuff didn’t.
Only that was mostly bunk, as it turned out. The study was seriously flawed. As were others that claimed a1 milk caused not just diabetes but heart disease as well. A paper published in Nature (you can read it yourself here) debunks the whole theory that a1 type milk caused any such problems in human beings. The conclusion of the paper was that:
“there is no convincing or probable evidence that A1 beta-casein in cows milk is a factor causing DM-I diabetes.“
It was also concluded that the same was true when it came to chronic heart disease. There was no evidence that a1 type milk was a factor in causing CHD. Another study supported the study published in Nature (abstract here) and says that
“Evidence from several epidemiological studies and animal models does not support the association of milk proteins, even proteins in breast milk, and the development of T1D [type 1 diabetes]. Ecological data, primarily based on A1/ A2 variations among livestock breeds, do not demonstrate causation, even among countries where there is considerable dairy consumption.”
So how did these health claims for a2 milk get to be ‘a thing’ as they say? Why does so-called “a2” milk even exist as a product?
In the 1990s someone came up with a genetic test to determine if a cow would produce the a1 or the a2 type of protein, and a company called A2 Corporation was started in New Zealand in 2000 to try to make money off it. They started a campaign to try to make people terrified of a1 milk by claiming that a1 type milk was responsible for heart disease and diabetes, and even tried to link it to schizophrenia and autism. It even launched a campaign to try to force the New Zealand government to declare a1 type milk a health hazard and require warnings on packaging.
Then the push back began.
First the New Zealand Commerce Commission turned up and pointed out some labeling issues. The company was claiming there was no a1 protein in its milk. But there was. Testing indicated there was indeed a1 type proteins in the a2 labeled milk and finally the company had to admit that they “could not be certain that there was no A1 in A2 milk.”
Then the NZ Food Safety Authority and Australia’s Ministry of Health and Food Standards got involved. Warnings were issued, threats were uttered, and finally the company had to withdraw its claims about the health effects of a1 and a2 milk, fines were issued, companies linked to the product went under, and, well, the whole thing was a mess.
The company itself, now called “The a2 Milk Company Limited” withdrew health claims for its product except the claim that it may cause less gastric distress for those who have problems consuming other types of milk.
That is the only alleged health effect that has any kind of actual scientific backing, but even that claim is dubious. There were a couple of apparently independent studies, very small ones, that gave some indication that for people who experience gastric distress from consuming milk, consuming “a2” milk might cause fewer symptoms in a few cases. But those studies each looked at only about 40 – 50 people, and the results were self-reported in at least one of those studies, so it isn’t really known if what they were experiencing was accurate or not.
But that hasn’t prevented a lot of other people from making the same unsubstantiated and outright false claims that the original company and its founders tried to push. While scrounging around doing research for this piece I found dozens of websites making the same health claims that got the company in trouble back in the early 2000s.
Let’s wrap this up because this is getting longer than I really wanted.
- Despite what some of the promoters of this stuff claim, “a1” milk does not cause disease in human beings.
- Despite what some of the promoters claim, “a2” milk does not cure anything.
- The only difference between “a1” and “a2” milk is a single amino acid in a single component of a milk protein.
- All dairy cows produce both the “a1” and “a2” type proteins, whether they have the so-called “a2” gene or not. The only difference is that cows with the genetic marker produce a larger percentage of the “a2” type. So-called “a2” milk still contains some “a1” type proteins.
- If you are truly lactose intolerant, you still should not drink “a2” milk because it contains normal lactose. You will still experience the same discomfort, bloating and other symptoms.
- If you are allergic to any of the components of milk you should not drink “a2” milk because it still has all of those components.
- The only alleged health benefit with any kind of actual proof is an indication that a small percentage of people who experience gastric distress from consuming milk experience somewhat less gastric distress when consuming “a2” milk, but even those few studies are questionable.
So why do people pay extraordinary prices for the stuff? As H.L. Mencken allegedly said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the [American] public.”