[This post was first published in the Fairfax NZ Sunday Star Times on 24 August 2014]
Evidence that A1 beta-casein might be a human health issue has been available for more than 15 years. However, the mainstream dairy industry has always fought against the notion that it might be important.
Back in 2007, I wrote a book called ‘Devil in the Milk’ which brought together the evidence at that time. The mainstream industry and even some elements within the Government were not impressed. They made it clear that this was an issue which New Zealand did not need to air publicly. The industry, with considerable help from the Food Safety Authority, was largely successful in dousing the public concerns, leaving just a few little puffs of smoke to remind those who were watching carefully that the fire might not be totally out.
In Australia, events played out differently. In 2007, ‘A2 Corporation’, which in recent months has been rebadged as ‘The a2 Milk Company’, was successful in gaining a secure foothold in Australian supermarkets. Its ‘a2 milk’ – which is free of A1 beta-casein – is now found in all major Australian supermarkets. Apart from Coles and Woolworth’s home brands, it is the leading brand of milk across Australia. It sells for more than twice the price of the supermarket home brands.
Within the last year, The a2 Milk Company has also launched an infant formula, ‘a2 Platinum’. It is produced here in New Zealand by Synlait on contract to The a2 Milk Company, and is marketed in Australia, New Zealand and China. Within New Zealand, the promotion has been limited, but in Australia it is clearly getting lots of traction.
All of this is relevant to New Zealand for two reasons. The first is that The a2 Milk Company is a New Zealand company, listed on the NZ stock exchange, and one of New Zealand’s largest agri-food companies by market capitalisation. Due to release its latest annual financial results on 28 August, I expect they will report substantial further progress in Australia, but perhaps not in other domains.
The second reason is that there is a flood of new research now being published in the international scientific and medical journals demonstrating the relevance of A1 beta-casein to human health. The underlying cause is that A1 beta-casein digests to release a peptide (a protein fragment) which has opioid characteristics. The peptide is called beta-casomorphin-7, or BCM7. This translates as ‘a morphine-like fragment from beta-casein containing seven amino acids’. The effects are multi-faceted and every month we are learning more.
The key research which is bringing the beta-casein issue back to public attention right now has come from Curtin University’s School of Public Health. This research has demonstrated in a human clinical trial that A1 and A2 beta-casein produce statistically significant differences in digestive symptoms. This has received huge media exposure in Australia but only limited exposure in New Zealand.
The Curtin paper is published in the high ranking European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. From Lincoln University, I have worked directly with the Curtin team on this trial, and I am one of the four authors.
Ironically, I think there are actually more important papers that have been forthcoming in the last few months, but they were with animals. With rats, mice and rabbits, and under strict ethical guidelines, we can do trials that include tissue dissection. Of course this is not possible with humans. However, it has been the human clinical trials that the Australian media has latched onto. This has the potential to now refocus attention on all of the other new research. There is further research in the pipeline, some of it close to publication.
I have always argued that for New Zealand the A1 versus A2 milk issue could be either a risk or an opportunity. Unfortunately, to a large extent we have squandered the opportunity – by ignoring rather than managing the risk – and now it is about to become a real risk.
The way to get rid of A1 beta-casein is to breed cows that produce only the A2 type of beta-casein. It is easy to breed out the A1, but it takes time. Sheep, goats, camels, buffalo and humans only produce beta-casein of the A2 type. The A1 type is only in cattle and has been caused by a historical mutation.
There is a lot more to be said about A1 beta-casein, including specifics of the health implications, and the associated industry politics.
The big message is that New Zealand should quickly get on with the task of breeding its dairy herds to be free of A1 beta-casein. Unfortunately, that will take at least ten years.