Maria Elena Sullivan could tell that her daughter Sofia, now 3, had trouble digesting milk from the moment she offered it to her at a year old. Sofia immediately spit it up. By the time she was 2, it was clear from her “serious reaction to it,” which included abdominal pain and vomiting, plus the fact that she routinely pushed it away when it was put in front of her, that Sofia could not tolerate regular milk at all. Then the Lakewood, Colo., mother came across a coupon for a free half-gallon of A2 milk, did a little research on it and decided to give it a try. She said Sofia “did just fine with it,” and now her daughter requests “A2 milk, please.”
At first glance, you might think that this new milk product is a quasi-natural, tinkered-with version of the real thing, but it is not. It is pure cow’s milk. It has no special additives — it is not lactose-free. What makes it different is that instead of containing A1 and A2 beta-casein proteins like ordinary cow’s milk does, it comes from cows that produce only the A2 variation of the protein. Because A1 can be hard for many people to digest, milk that contains only A2 is a helpful option, allowing people like Sofia to enjoy milk again. If you have trouble digesting milk — even if you think it is due to lactose intolerance — A2 milk could be the answer for you, too. The milk has been sold in Australia for more than a decade, was introduced to the United States in 2015 by the A2 Milk Company and is now available in grocery stores nationwide.
Goat, sheep, water buffalo and human breast milks all contain only A2-like proteins, and thousands of years ago, cow’s milk also had only A2. But with modern farming methods, European cow herds evolved to produce A1 as well. Today, some cows produce only A1, some only A2 and some both proteins. In regular milk production, all the cow’s milks are typically blended together so you get a mix of proteins in the carton. To get A2 milk, a simple genetic test is used to determine which cows make only that protein variation, and their milk is used exclusively.
Several animal and human studies show that A2 milk is more easily digested than A1 milk. Scientists are just beginning to understand how the protein affects people, but we do know that during the breakdown of A1 in the gut, a peptide fragment (a chain of amino acids) called BCM-7 is formed. This fragment can slow down digestion, trigger inflammation and cause symptoms such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation. No such fragment is formed with A2 digestion.
If those symptoms sound similar to those of lactose intolerance, it’s because they are. And many people may be misdiagnosing themselves when it is really A1 they need to avoid. That was the case for Manuel Villacorta, a registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay area. “I always thought I was lactose intolerant but was never officially diagnosed,” he explained. He was skeptical about trying A2 milk and was taken aback when he tolerated it. “It really changed my life when it comes to milk.” Now when clients tell him they are lactose intolerant, he advises them to try it.
Scientists have long questioned why there are so many more people who say they are lactose intolerant than who actually have lactose malabsorption when tested. A sensitivity to A1 might just explain that gap. What’s more, even people who are officially diagnosed with lactose intolerance may do better with A2 milk because the inflammatory response caused by the BCM-7 fragment in the gut has been shown to worsen lactose intolerance.
With all the nondairy milks on the market (almond milk, coconut milk, rice milk, hemp milk . . . the list goes on), a person who has trouble digesting dairy has more options than ever, and you can certainly have a healthy diet without cow’s milk. But unlike those alternative milks, cow’s milk naturally provides a multitude of important nutrients such as protein, calcium, B vitamins and potassium. Plus it is a cornerstone of many wonderful dishes. If you are fine with regular cow’s milk, there is not enough reason to recommend switching to A2. But if you have difficulty digesting dairy and want to have it in your life, A2 milk just might be the solution.
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