Stories of life on our farm in Northwest Georgia where every day is an adventure in this beautiful spot that God has entrusted to our stewardship.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Devil in the Milk

It's a hard transition from mourning my angelic Zephyr to writing about the devil in the milk.  It somehow feels disrespectful of Zephyr to move on to another topic, but to be honest, seeing that last post is painful every time I sit down at my computer.  Life does go on, and this is where ours is heading right now.  So let's talk about the "devil in the milk."

Milk!  Who doesn't love a nice tall glass of ice cold milk, especially with a peanut butter sandwich or a brownie?  Is it even possible to eat them without milk?  If you're like me, this photograph probably stirs up childhood memories of cookies and milk after school.  If you're a mother, it probably makes you think of words like "healthy" and "wholesome" and "Vitamin D."

Unless you're one of the many people who suffer from lactose intolerance, a few of which are members of our extended family.  One of those is my own husband, Herb, whose favorite snack for years was two pecan sandies and a glass of cold milk. Until he began to realize that more and more often he could link painful bouts of colic to having consumed milk, cheese, yogurt or ice cream.

When we bought our first Dexter in 2009 and bred her, I dreamed of milking her and making our own cheese, butter and yogurt.  Herb didn't get my milking parlor done in time to milk Sara after Siobhan was born in November 2010.  But he's building it now, and I can't wait to milk Siobhan as soon as I can!

I first heard the term "A2 milk" a couple of years ago, but I had only a vague idea that A2 milk might somehow be healthier than most regular store-bought milk and could sometimes be tolerated by people who seem to be lactose intolerant.  Considering our family's problems, that was tempting!  It was only recently that I got some Weston A. Price Foundation brochures at a farmer's market and thought of the subject again.  The first thing I did was go on Amazon to buy Devil in the Milk:  Illness, Health, and the Politics of A1 and A2 Milk, by Keith Woodford.

As I use the term "devil in the milk," I want to give a nod to Dr. Woodford for gathering so much information on this subject and publishing it in a form lay people can understand.  This book is definitely not an "easy read," but it's VERY worthwhile!

Let me try to summarize Professor Woodford's book in a few sentences and key ideas:

Some years ago researchers began to notice a correlation between the kind of cows' milk drunk in different countries and the incidence of Type 1 Diabetes in children and heart disease in adults in those populations.  Further testing and research has zeroed in on two variations of casein protein in the cows' milk of those countries.  In countries where the cows produced milk with mostly A2 beta-casein protein, the incidence of those two diseases was significantly (in a statistical sense) lower.

There are two main kinds of protein in cows' milk--whey protein and casein protein.  Whey proteins stay in solution (Little Miss Muffet's "whey); casein proteins precipitate out (Little Miss Muffet's "curds").  It is these proteins that can cause a problem when digested.

Casein proteins can be classified into several groups (alpha, beta, and kappa), but the ones we are concerned with are the two main beta-caseins, A1 and A2.

A2 was the original beta-casein in cows' milk, but many years ago some cows developed a natural mutation, A1.  It's called A1 because it was the first one identified, even though it wasn't the original protein.  Most European dairy cows carry this gene mutation, while most Asian and African cows still have the original A2 gene.  Most of the commercially-bred dairy cattle in the United States are A1.

When A1 milk is digested, the protein breaks down differently than A2 milk.  A1 milk breaks down and releases a fragment of seven amino acids, called beta-casomorphin-7 or BCM7.  This is the "devil in the milk."  BCM7 actually has narcotic properties.  I wondered whether this might explain why eating cereal at bedtime helps me go to sleep.  In fact, a New Zealand company markets "Sleeptime Milk!"

The other effects of BCM7 are not so pleasant, and Devil in the Milk explains in detail the research into this subject, both pro and con.  A1 milk and BCM7 have been studied in relation not only to Type 1 Diabetes and heart disease, but also to autism, schizophrenia, coeliac disease, Crohn's disease, SIDS, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's.  This is not to say that A1 milk causes all of these diseases, but that in genetically susceptible people, it can be a factor in the development of the disease, and eliminating it may help reduce symptoms.

If you google "A2 milk," you are likely to find a confusing picture.  Dr. Woodford's book explains how and why this is, much of it relating to the "politics" of big dairy business.  He explains that it is fairly easy to convert a dairy herd to A2 milk, taking at the most ten years of breeding.  The problem that arises for big dairy concerns is:  What on earth will they do with all of their A1 milk during those 10 years?  Who will want to buy it?  It has seemed easier in many ways to simply discredit the A2 milk and the A2 Corporation that patented the genetic test for it.

After reading Professor Woodford's scholarly book, I am personally convinced that A2 milk is healthier for me to drink.  I'm hoping that we will discover that Herb is--not as we thought, lactose-intolerant--but allergic to the effects of BCM7, or in other words, allergic to A1 milk.

As Dexter owners, we have been made aware of the existence of a genetic test for A2 status available through Texas A&M and recently, UCDavis.  When I registered Siobhan I sent some of her tail hairs (with the bulb) to TAMU and ordered the A2 test, among others.  We love our Siobhan, so we were very disappointed when her results came back only heterozygous, or A1/A2.  Let me explain . . .

You may remember from biology that each being gets a set of two genes, one from each parent.  Some genes, like black in Dexters or brown eyes in humans, are dominant.  That means that if the cow gets one black gene, it will be black, even if the other parent is red.  A human who receives a gene for brown eyes will get brown eyes, even if the other parent has blue eyes.  You can only get blue eyes if both of your parents have a gene for blue eyes.

The A1/A2 gene is different.  A cow can have genes that cause her to give pure A2 milk, pure A1 milk, or half-and-half, A1/A2.  (Homozygous means both genes are the same; heterozygous means they are different.)  Even though bulls don't give milk, they still carry the gene and pass it on to their offspring.

So as soon as Siobhan's calf, Macree, was born, we sent her tail hairs off to TAMU to be tested for, among other things, A2.  At the same time, now that I knew I was pulling the tail hairs correctly, I sent off the tail hairs I had pulled from Sara months ago.  The results came back this past week.

I was very disappointed to learn that Macree is heterozygous, or "A2N," as the test results say.  That means she has one A2 gene and one gene is Negative for A2.  In other words, like her mama, she's A1/A2.  So that means we won't be keeping Macree as our milk cow.  Instead of getting a calf from her in two years and being able to milk her, that means that it's "back to the drawing board," breeding Siobhan and hoping for an A2 heifer next year.  The problem is that we've already reserved a breeding to Cash this year, so once again we only have a 25% chance of getting an A2 heifer because he, like Siobhan, is heterozygous.  That puts our chance of A2 milk three years away, a long time to wait when you're going on 58!  A long time to wait when you're 60, and you can't enjoy milk and cookies anymore!

We knew that Sara, Siobhan's mother, had one A2 gene because her former owners had gotten a homozygous A2 heifer from her.  We knew they had milked her, too, but her less-than-cuddly personality and the lack of a milking parlor has discouraged me from thinking of milking her when her new calf is born.  I told Herb he'd just have to see if he could tolerate Siobhan's half-A2, raw milk.

Imagine my complete astonishment as I read further into TAMU's test results and found out that Sara, grumpy old Sara, is homozygous A2!!!  The cow we planned to sell after this next calf is weaned is standing out in the pasture, bagging up with pure-gold A2 milk, and all we need is a calf to turn on the spigot!  Well . . . and a milking parlor and stanchion!

I rushed out to the barn to tell Herb the astonishing news, and to tell him of our change in plans--I'm going to milk Sara!  There's no way I'm going to let that calf hog all that priceless (because we couldn't find it to purchase at any price) A2 milk!  This means that Sara's not going to lose her good home just yet.  We called her former owners who have a great homozygous A2 bull called Belle Fourche Rousseau, and Sara has a date with him in September.  Not only that, but we've got an offer to keep her in milking form while she's there.  Of course, there's only a 50% chance that calf will be a heifer, but it's guaranteed to be homozygous A2.  And Sara will get to stay on here until we have an A2 heifer from her that's ready to milk (two years from when it's born).

This means that instead of three years, it's only a matter of weeks until we get to try our own A2 milk!

And it also means I get to keep my most photogenic animal around for awhile longer!  That's what I call a win-win-win situation!

The following links might be helpful:

A2 Milk: Feel the Difference

A review of Devil in the Milk

Weston A. Price Foundation on Devil in the Milk

Keith Woodford's blog


  1. This was a great read. I seriously want to be you when I grow up!!!

    1. You are SO sweet, Connie! Just do it younger than I did so you get longer to enjoy it! :)

  2. What an interesting find! I've been reading a similarly interesting book called Nourishing Traditions, about traditionally made food. It has been fascinating! I hope to be able to get raw milk and other delightful foods like you raise when we get home! I might have found a dairy that is hormone free and grass fed, but I'm not sure about the A1 or A2 genes of the cows. :)

    1. It sounds like I'll have to check out Nourishing Traditions. Thanks for the tip! I checked your profile and blog to see where you are going to "get home" from. I never would have guessed Japan! My Disney-phile niece lives in Japan now, and I'm thinking it's an awfully big coincidence if there are two of you! :) When you do get home, you could ask your local dairy if their milk is A1 or A2. They might even know! And if not, you might help educate them--and let them know there's a market for A2 milk!


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