Devil in the Milk Illness, Health, and the Politics of A1 and A2 Milk
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009
I have thought about the medicinal aspects of cow’s milk for virtually my entire medical career. As one four-year-old child pointed out to me many years ago, “Mommy, I know why he always talks about milk, his name is Cow—-an.” So, I guess this milk “obsession” is no surprise.
The obsession started in earnest about twenty-five years ago when I read the book The Milk of Human Kindness Is Not Pasteurized by maverick physician William Campbell Douglass, MD. This was one of the most influential books I have ever read. I became convinced that a large part of the disease in this country is related to the way we handle, or rather mishandle, milk and milk products. Raw and cultured dairy products from healthy grass-fed cows are one of the healthiest foods people have ever eaten; in fact, they are the very foundation of western civilization. On the other hand, pasteurized, and particularly low-fat, milk products have caused more disease than perhaps any other substance people are generally in contact with. This view was reinforced when I met and joined up with Sally Fallon and learned the principles of the Weston A. Price Foundation. End of story, I assumed; but I could stop thinking about milk.
Over the years, however, every once in a while Sally would say to me, “You know, we have the wrong cows here.” I had also heard this comment from assorted bio-dynamic farmers but didn’t really know what to make of it or whether this was a medical issue I should be tackling. All along, though, I felt that something was not quite right. It remained unmistakably true that many of my patients, in spite of eating only the proper dairy products, still had illness and still seemed not to tolerate milk. Truth be told, for most of my adult life I myself couldn’t drink any kind of raw milk without feeling a bit sick and congested. Somehow my story with milk wasn’t quite finished.
Along came the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet, and my discovery of the use of low dose naltrexone, both of which I have described in previous writings, but the relevance here is that many patients only improved and recovered when they eliminated milk (but not other dairy products) from their diets and took a medication that stimulated endogenous (one’s own) endorphin production.
Then, a further nudge in the direction of this topic showed up about a month ago. I was asked to consider writing the foreword to a book called Devil in the Milk, written by agribusiness professor and farm-management consultant Keith Woodford. In this book Dr. Woodford lays out the theory that there is a devil in some of our milk, and this is something we need to come to grips with. Here is a brief synopsis of the main thesis of his book.
Milk consists of three parts: 1) butterfat, 2) whey and 3) milk solids. For this story we are only concerned about the milk solids part, as the fat and whey don’t have this “devil.” The milk solids part is composed of many different proteins, along with lactose and other sugars. It is the protein part of the solids we’re interested in. One of these proteins is called casein, of which there are many different types, but the one casein we are interested in is the predominant protein called beta-casein.
All proteins are long chains of amino acids that have many “branches” coming off different parts of the main chain. Beta-casein is a chain of 229 amino acids with proline at postion 67—at least the proline is there in “old-fashioned” cows. These cows with proline at number 67 are called A2 cows, and are the older breeds of cows (such as Jerseys, Asian and African cows). Some five thousand years ago, a mutation occurred in this proline amino acid, converting it to histidine. Cows that have this mutated beta-casein are called A1 cows, which include more modern breeds like Holsteins.
The side chain that comes off amino acid 67 is called BCM 7. BCM 7 is a small protein (called a peptide) that is a very powerful opiate and which has some undesirable effects on animals and humans. What’s important here is the fact that proline has a strong bond to BCM 7 which helps keep it from getting into the milk, so that essentially no BCM 7 is found in the urine, blood or GI tract of old-fashioned A2 cows.
On the other hand, histidine, the mutated protein, only weakly holds on to BCM 7, so it is liberated in the GI tract of animals and humans who drink A1 cow milk, and it is found in significant quantity in the blood and urine of these animals.
Woodford describes research showing that the opiate BCM 7 can cause neurological impairment in animals and people exposed to it, especially autistic and schizophrenic changes. BCM 7 interferes with the immune response, and injecting BCM 7 into animal models has been shown to provoke Type 1 diabetes. Dr. Woodford presents research showing a direct correlation between a population’s exposure to A1 cow’s milk and the incidence of auto-immune disease, heart disease (BCM 7 has a pro-inflammatory effect on the blood vessels), type-1 diabetes, autism, and schizophrenia. What really caught my eye is the finding that BCM 7 selectively binds to the epithelial cells in the mucous membranes (such as in the nose) and stimulates mucus secretion.
For reasons that are unclear historically, once this mutation occurred many thousands of years ago, the A1 beta-casein gene spread rapidly in many countries in the western world. Some have speculated that the reason for this wide spread of A1 cows is that the calves drinking A1 milk and exposed to the opiate BCM 7 are more docile than their traditional brethren (in effect, they were stoned). This theory is only speculation, of course. But what is true is that basically all American dairy cows have this mutated betacasein and are predominantly A1 cows.
Consider French cheese—mostly due to culinary snobbery, the French never accepted these A1 breeds of cow, claiming they have lousy milk. Voilà, the French enjoy superlative milk and cheese. Our issue in America is that we have the wrong cows. When you take A1 cow milk away, and stimulate our own endorphin production instead of via the toxic opiate BCM 7, some amazing health benefits ensue.
So what are we all to do with this knowledge? Does this mean no one should drink raw cow’s milk in the U.S.? One saving grace, as expressed in Devil in the Milk, is that the absorption of BCM 7 is much lower in people with a healthy GI tract. This also parallels the ideas of the GAPS theory which expounds upon this topic. BCM 7 is also not found in goat’s or sheep’s milk, so these types of milk might be better tolerated by those with a compromised digestive system.
A final point: we now have one more thing to put on our activism to-do list. Dr. Woodford explains that it is fairly straightforward to switch a herd to become an all A2 herd. No genetic engineering is needed, no fancy tests, just one simple test of the beta-casein and it can be done via breeding with A2 sires and selective culling of A1 individuals. Hopefully, when this practice becomes widespread we will end up with a truly safe and healthy milk supply. Then maybe I should just change my name.
(This review was first published at www.foufoldhealing.com)
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2009.