Milk: A1, A2 or entirely avoidable?

Sahiwal cows at Mr. Dairy’s farms   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The entry to the cowsheds at Mr Dairy in Gurugram is dramatic. Beethoven’s ‘Fifth Symphony in C Minor’ plays — and one of the 60 brown Sahiwal cows hops over a low ledge, prancing away to a patch of maize, barley, corn, wheat, and alfalfa.

The five-month-old farm-and-office on the Gurguram-Faridabad Road includes hydroponically grown micro-greens, from an organic farm in Ambala, in their fodder. Tushar Singh, the 32-year-old founder of this dairy farm, says it makes his cows’ coats shine.

Singh calls Mr Dairy a “start-up” despite the venture being a revival and revamp of a nearly six-decade-old dairy business called Nanak, which his grandfather started in 1962. Before shutting down in 2001, Nanak had hit a daily supply of close to 21 lakh litres of milk a day across North India. Singh’s father, who was heading the business by then, gave it up because “he said, ‘I don’t want to poison the public’” — which he was doing by way of adulteration to meet daily demand.

This is not a new problem. We have known that urea, soap, starch, and formalin (a preservative known to cause damage to the gastrointestinal tract, liver and kidney) regularly feature in our packaged milk. The dairy industry has been injecting cows with antibiotics to increase yield — the chemicals have been ultimately finding their way into our cuppa.

The latest conundrum in the dairy world however is this: A choice between A1 and A2 milk. And Mr Dairy has given into the argument for the latter.

The origin story

A1 and A2 are two forms of beta-casein, a sub-group of casein that is the largest protein group found in milk. Originally, all cows would produce only A2 protein. Over the millennia however, a genetic mutation made many of them start producing both A1 and A2 proteins, with some producing A1 only. According to Dr N Murali, Head, Department of Animal Genetics and Breeding at the Veterinary College and Research Institute in Namakkal, this mutation is “natural”. In 2000, armed with research about the alleged dangers of A1 milk, Corran McLachlan, a New Zealand-based scientist and entrepreneur, founded A2 Corporation (later rebranded as The a2 Milk Company). He claimed that the prominence of A1 beta-casein over A2 could be a public health issue, leading to type 1 diabetes, autism, an increased risk of heart disease, and digestive issues. The assumption is that BCM-7, an opioid peptide released when digesting A1, affects the immune and GI system.

Non-dairy calcium boost
  • Ragi
  • Sesame
  • Lotus stem
  • Drumstick
  • Water chestnuts

Recent research studying the effects of milk on Chinese children, published in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, says that gastrointestinal dysfunction “may be at least partially attributed to the...release of...BCM-7 from beta-casein, rather than lactose intolerance”.

India’s desi cow breeds like Tharparkar, Gir, and Sahiwal have a genetic make-up that yields milk high in A2. “All indigenous breeds, or Bos indicus, have a higher frequency of A2 protein,” says Murali. However, over the years, cross-breeding with foreign breeds like Jersey and Holstein Friesian (which give twice as much milk per day as desi cows, though A1-rich), to meet commercial interests, has only muddled the gene pool.

Et tu, A2?

Google’s Ngram tool, which maps the occurrence of a term in published books, shows that ‘A2 protein’ started coming up in the late ’60s, way before McLachlan came into the picture. It was only at the beginning of 2018, however, that the term hit a worldwide peak on Google trends. Globally, most interest has come from New Zealand, home to McLachlan’s The a2 Milk Company. Searches from Australia are a close second, and India a distant third.

Now, well-established dairy brands like Amul too have started selling what they claim to be A2 cow milk. This, despite the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) not yet having established any standards to differentiate between the milks.

Save the breeds
  • Pushing A2 milk consumption could save native dairy breeds, which are diminishing for lack of demand — they were traditionally used for work, now replaced by technology.

The likes of the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University — under whose jurisdiction Murali’s institute in Namakkal comes — can only certify each animal as purely A1 or A2, or having one gene as dominant over the other. As if these grounds were not shaky enough, A2 milk is also more than twice the price of regular packaged milk.

Further, “A few years after The a2 Milk Company’s patent, the claims that A1 causes schizophrenia, heart disease, type 1 diabetes were reviewed [by the scientific community] and held to be unsubstantiated,” says Dr Subhash Wangnoo, senior endocrinologist at the Apollo Centre for Obesity, Diabetes & Endocrinology.

The one litre glass bottles of milk from Mr. Dairy

The one litre glass bottles of milk from Mr. Dairy   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority had also agreed that there was no cause-and-effect relationship between consuming A1 protein and the illnesses alleged. “There are no long-term cohort studies [studies across generations to establish cause of a disease] to say conclusively that A1 milk is bad or A2 is good,” stresses Dr Shobna Bhatia, Head, Department of Gastroenterology at the KEM Hospital in Mumbai.

While cow’s milk and A2 are used interchangeably, it is relevant to note that all buffalo milk is A2. In Namakkal, where Dr Murali is located, A2 buffalo milk is available at ₹50 from a local dairy farmer. Buffalo milk also contains less “problematic cholesterol” than cow milk does, he says, even though the latter has found favour in the recent past due to lower fat content.

Purity over noise

Back at Mr Dairy, Singh adds another dimension to the issue: regardless of whether your milk is A1 or A2, it can come with a whole host of other problems, especially when packed in plastic, and not stored under 4°C. The brand sticks to one-litre glass bottles only, at ₹160. This is noteworthy, especially since Singh’s parent-brand Nanak, claims to have introduced pouched milk in the early ’80s. “We created this whole poly-pack mess, and we are now trying to clean it up,” he says.

Indie milk start-ups are now choosing to tackle the problem of purity instead of getting into the A1 versus A2 debate. Whyte Farms, a brand available in Delhi, focusses on providing only organic, hormone-free milk at ₹70 for a one-litre bottle.

Happy Milk, an organic brand in Bengaluru, retails at ₹80 per litre, but they offer PET bottle options too.

The flip-side to the purity argument, is that when the milk reaches the pasteurisation stage, any real goodness from the organic nature of the milk, is killed. “By pasteurising, we’re killing disease-causing bacteria, but also the good bacteria, which help us digest the milk,” says dietician Manjari Chandra.

Sidestepping all of this though, are voices that suggest there is no real need for milk. A child with abdominal pain is the most common patient in paediatric gastroenterologist and hepatologist Dr Sarath Gopalan’s practice. “Almost one in five,” he says. “In India, the major cause for this is constipation, and children with a prolonged exposure to milk and milk products, with exclusion of other foods, are almost always likely to be constipated.” Also, calcium from milk is not easily absorbed, says Chandra, adding that “it’s better absorbed through freshly-set, home-made curd”.

Your final takeaway? If your child is happy drinking a glass or two of milk, that’s fine. But if every morning is a struggle, you may want to try something else, because as Chandra notes, upto 60% of South Indians and 30 to 50% of North Indians are lactose-intolerant — an inflamed gut will not absorb nutrients anyway. Medical professionals are not buying into the A1-A2 theory just yet, but organic milk from a glass bottle might be decidedly better than what we get out of a plastic packet.

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Printable version | Jan 13, 2021 7:42:44 PM |

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