What milk is best?

Many mam­mals have been called into dairy duty but the in­gre­di­ents – and taste – of their milk vary.

New Zealand Listener - - MILK DEBATE -

In his new book, Milk! A 10,000Year Food Fra­cas, Mark Kurlan­sky takes the reader on an arm­chair tour of this most con­tentious food, be­gin­ning with the ques­tion – what beast is best? North­ern Eu­ro­peans once con­sid­ered rein­deer milk the best; for a time, elk milk was a hit. The French me­dieval guide book Le Mé­nagier de Paris cau­tioned that the ill and con­va­les­cent should avoid cows’ milk. The best milk, it as­serted, was hu­man milk, fol­lowed by that from don­keys, sheep and goats.

Dif­fer­ent milks have vary­ing amounts of fat, pro­tein and lac­tose. In the freez­ing wa­ters of the North At­lantic, the milk of a hooded seal is 61% fat. In south­ern Africa’s arid sa­van­nahs, black rhi­nos’ milk con­tains just 0.2% fat. Hu­man milk is made up of 4% fat, 1.3% pro­tein and 7.2% lac­tose. About 90% is just wa­ter.

A BBC re­port says the clos­est to hu­man milk could be that of the plains ze­bra, with 2.2% fat, 1.6% pro­tein, 7% lac­tose, and 89% wa­ter. But in a sur­pris­ingly long list of mam­mals called into dairy duty, the ze­bra doesn’t get a men­tion.

Don­key milk is pro­duced com­mer­cially, es­pe­cially in Italy, but it has less fat than hu­man milk. Horse milk is ex­tremely low in fat. Don­keys and horses are also mono­gas­tric – they have a sin­glecham­bered stom­ach like hu­mans, un­like ru­mi­nant an­i­mals such as cows, goats and camels.

It makes sense, Kurlan­sky writes, “that milk pro­duced by an an­i­mal that di­gests the way we do would be most suitable for us”.

But horse milk has caught on in only a few cul­tures – per­haps, as Kurlan­sky at­tests, be­cause the taste is “quite strong and aw­ful”.

Yak milk, still used in high-al­ti­tude Ti­bet, is lac­tose-sweet and 6% but­ter­fat – far higher than most other milks.

Goats don’t need rich green pas­tures but their milk has triple the amount of pro­tein and less vi­ta­min B-12, es­sen­tial for cre­at­ing red blood cells. Sheep milk is richer in milk solids than that of the goat and cow, but sheep are no­to­ri­ously poor milk pro­duc­ers – one day’s milk­ing of 20 la­caune sheep for Basque cheese pro­duces only enough to fill a 40-litre milk can.

Buf­falo milk is still con­sumed in

In­dia and the Philip­pines, and is used to make moz­zarella cheese in Italy. Its score­card is promis­ing: it has more fat but less choles­terol than cows’ milk, it keeps with­out spoil­ing for longer and the an­i­mals are pro­duc­tive for up to 20 years, more than twice as long as cows.

The llama pro­vides milk in South Amer­ica, but these an­i­mals were not milked un­til Eu­ro­peans ar­rived. Milk from the con­ve­niently tall but grumpy camel is still an im­por­tant part of the Be­douin diet.

Horse sense: “It makes sense that milk pro­duced by an an­i­mal that di­gests the way we do would be most suitable for us.”

the Lancet study re­minded read­ers that the daily in­take of dairy in Swe­den is markedly higher than that on which the Pure re­search is based.

New Zealan­ders are the third-high­est con­sumers of fresh milk per capita in the world, but our dairy habits are chang­ing. Since Time ran its “End­ing the War on Fat” cover story in 2014, but­ter sales, says Fon­terra head of re­search and de­vel­op­ment Mark Piper, have in­creased whereas sales of ze­ro­fat milk are de­clin­ing. This year, Fon­terra opened a new $15 mil­lion cream cheese fac­tory in Darfield that is ex­pected to make up to 24,000 tonnes a year.

“There was a lot of bad science show­ing dairy fat in par­tic­u­lar was bad for you – only re­cently has a lot of that been de­bunked,” says Piper. “Fat gives a flavour and a taste that is hard to repli­cate.”

Rod Jack­son, pro­fes­sor of epi­demi­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Auck­land’s School of Pop­u­la­tion Health, won’t have a bar of it. Long-term stud­ies such as the Pure study,

New re­search is look­ing at the po­ten­tial of pro­bi­otics to al­le­vi­ate ma­ter­nal anx­i­ety.

he says, are im­pos­si­ble to do well. Peo­ple of­ten for­get what they have eaten the week be­fore, over a 5-10 year pe­riod their di­ets can change and what is eaten can­not be teased out from other life­style fac­tors such as smok­ing, drink­ing and ex­er­cise. And for this re­search, he says, the re­sults also de­pend on how much other sat­u­rated fat you eat and what sort of dairy you are con­sum­ing – high fat or low fat, but­ter or yo­gurt?

“Yo­gurt is made from whole milk – it has a bit of fat but it also has pro­tein and cal­cium. Cheese is made from whole milk, but but­ter is just the 5% of milk that is fat – it has no pro­tein, no cal­cium. Peo­ple say but­ter is nat­u­ral but it is a highly re­fined, highly con­cen­trated form of sat­u­rated fat, and there is good ev­i­dence that eat­ing a diet high in sat­u­rated fat is not good for you. But­ter doesn’t come out of a cow, milk does. Ex­cuse the pun, but they are like chalk and cheese.”

De­bates about the risks and ben­e­fits of dairy will not end any time soon. Even with­out tak­ing into ac­count large-scale dairy farm­ing’s ur­gent en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues and

on­go­ing an­i­mal wel­fare con­cerns, fig­ur­ing out if the white stuff is the right stuff con­tin­ues to be­fud­dle sci­en­tists, as it has for cen­turies.

“Milk is a test case in the most press­ing is­sues in food pol­i­tics,” says US writer and food his­to­rian Mark Kurlan­sky, au­thor of global food chron­i­cles Cod and Salt, “from in­dus­trial farm­ing and an­i­mal rights to GMOs [ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms], the lo­ca­vore [lo­cal food] move­ment and ad­vo­cates for raw milk.”

Kurlan­sky’s lat­est book, Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fra­cas, ex­plores the com­plex story of the “most

ar­gued over food in hu­man his­tory”.

Cows’ milk has four times as much pro­tein as hu­man milk and lacks linoleic acid, im­por­tant for hu­man brain growth. In Europe, in the early Mid­dle Ages, it was third on the pre­ferred list af­ter goat and sheep milk, Kurlan­sky notes. But cows have come to dom­i­nate the global dairy sec­tor: they are easy to do­mes­ti­cate and, per an­i­mal, pro­duce a tremen­dous amount of milk: 25-30 litres a day com­pared to a goat’s 3.7 litres a day.


The Mon­gol conquest of most of Asia and East­ern Europe was

achieved by a soldier’s diet

of koumiss (fer­mented mare’s milk) and dried cows’ milk curds, en­abling them to ride for long hours with­out stop­ping.

But not ev­ery­one em­braced such a diet. South­ern Eu­ro­peans long re­garded the greater con­sump­tion of dairy foods by their north­ern neigh­bours as ev­i­dence of their bar­bar­ian na­ture. The Dutch, in par­tic­u­lar, were sin­gled out as a crude and comic peo­ple or kaaskop­pen, “cheese heads”. But the Dutch, English, French, Span­ish and Por­tuguese were also the milk-drink­ing con­querors. Off they sailed with their bovine cargo, most com­monly the large black and white hol­stein-friesian from the Nether­lands, to Amer­ica, Aus­tralia and New Zea­land.

With in­creas­ing ur­ban­i­sa­tion and milk pro­duc­tion, qual­ity be­came a se­ri­ous is­sue. A freshly drawn bucket of milk starts grow­ing dan­ger­ous bac­te­ria within min­utes, es­pe­cially when buck­ets are not par­tic­u­larly clean. In large cities like Lon­don, milk was car­ried through dirty streets in open and of­ten un­washed pails; the risk of con­tam­i­na­tion was huge.

Con­sumers paid the price as milk was mixed with chalk, mo­lasses and other ad­di­tives to im­prove colour, tex­ture and quan­tity. By the late-1800s, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, cholera, scar­let fever, diph­the­ria and ty­phoid were all traced back to milk.

By the early-1900s, much of the US had man­dated pas­teuri­sa­tion, which in­volves heat­ing milk to just be­low boil­ing point then rapidly cool­ing it (it be­came main­stream in New Zea­land in the 1940s). The al­ter­na­tive, a process of mon­i­tor­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, was con­sid­ered too ex­pen­sive. Still, the de­bate rum­bles on: more than half a mil­lion Amer­i­cans a year buy un­pas­teurised milk. From a taste and nu­tri­tion per­spec­tive, Kurlan­sky tells the Lis­tener, “raw milk is bet­ter; the is­sue is, can it be safely reg­u­lated?”

The de­vel­op­ment of the milk­ing ma­chine saw the move to ever big­ger dairy herds. In New Zea­land, the av­er­age herd size has grown from 166 cows in 1990 to 414 cows in 2016-17; in the US, herd num­bers can be in the thou­sands.

In­creas­ing scale gave some eco­nomic se­cu­rity for a low-cost com­mod­ity but there have been on­go­ing health scares. In 1973, an­i­mal feed in the US was found to con­tain the flame re­tar­dant poly­bromi­nated byphenyl, or PBB. GMO-based re­com­bi­nant bovine growth hor­mone (rBGH) to boost milk pro­duc­tion fur­ther alien­ated some Amer­i­can con­sumers. In the UK and Western Europe, out­breaks of bovine spongi­form en­cephalopa­thy, or mad cow dis­ease, caused by con­cen­trated feed in­clud­ing cheap meat and bone meal, drove wor­ried con­sumers to the or­ganic milk shelves or plant-based milk al­ter­na­tives. China’s lack of trust in its own milk was ag­gra­vated by the melamine poi­son scare in 2008, when more than 300,000 ba­bies be­came ill and six died. The Sanlu Group, in which Fon­terra had a 43% stake, was found to be the source of the poi­soned milk but other dairy com­pa­nies have since come un­der sus­pi­cion. Many be­lieve that not all the cul­prits were found, Kurlan­sky re­ports.

Out­side hor­mones, ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, chem­i­cals and an­tibi­otics, he con­cludes, there re­mains a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion that, af­ter 10,000 years, has still not been an­swered: “If a dairy did ev­ery­thing right and its milk was per­fect, would it be good for you? Af­ter all, adults drink­ing milk is not nat­u­ral; nei­ther is ba­bies drink­ing any­thing but their moth­ers’ milk.”

Dairy prod­ucts do con­tain spe­cific amino acids, nat­u­ral fats, vi­ta­mins K1 and K2, cal­cium, mag­ne­sium and potas­sium. New re­search is look­ing at the po­ten­tial of pro­bi­otics iso­lated from milk to al­le­vi­ate ma­ter­nal de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety af­ter birth and to re­duce the risk of ges­ta­tional di­a­betes and the in­ci­dence of child­hood eczema.

Oth­ers ar­gue all the nu­tri­ents present in

Fresh milk starts grow­ing dan­ger­ous bac­te­ria within min­utes, but from a nu­tri­tion per­spec­tive raw milk is bet­ter.

milk can be sourced from other foods. US ad­vo­cacy or­gan­i­sa­tion Physi­cians Com­mit­tee for Re­spon­si­ble Medicine urges a dairyfree diet and de­nounces feed­ing an­i­mal milk to chil­dren. In 2012, the Ad­ver­tis­ing Stan­dards Au­thor­ity in this coun­try up­held com­plaints re­gard­ing Fon­terra’s claims that dairy is an “es­sen­tial part of a bal­anced diet” and “we all need it”. We don’t, but dairy is still a cheap and read­ily avail­able source of nu­tri­ents.

As part of a var­ied, largely plant-based diet, says Elaine Rush, sci­en­tific direc­tor at the New Zea­land Nu­tri­tion Foun­da­tion, dairy can help turn around our poor health out­comes. “We need to look at the whole pic­ture, be holis­tic and also think of the world and its fu­ture rather than fo­cus on one food or nu­tri­ent. We are one of the most poorly nour­ished coun­tries in the OECD be­cause of our over­weight and obe­sity. Al­most one in three adult New Zealan­ders is obese, and one in 10 chil­dren – that is mal­nu­tri­tion.”

A di­ag­no­sis of lac­tose in­tol­er­ance may be mask­ing symp­toms re­lated to a spe­cific pro­tein.

She points to the suc­cess of Pro­ject En­er­gize, a pro­gramme now be­ing used in 242 pri­mary schools aimed at en­cour­ag­ing phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity and healthy eat­ing, in­clud­ing “the con­sump­tion of milk and other high-cal­cium foods ev­ery day”. Al­ready, she says, par­tic­i­pat­ing schools have seen a 3% de­cline in child­hood obe­sity. In a re­run of the 1950s, Fon­terra is now giv­ing out 200ml packs of UHT milk to chil­dren in 1420 schools around the coun­try.

De­spite re­cent find­ings on sat­u­rated-fat dairy, says Rush, low-fat dairy still has a place.

“If you take the fat out you in­crease the pro­tein and wa­ter-sol­u­ble cal­cium, so you get more pro­tein and cal­cium for your money. I am not anti-fat but there is ev­i­dence against sat­u­rated fat.”

Jack­son agrees. “I am not against eat­ing dairy,” he says, “but I am against eat­ing a diet high in sat­u­rated fat.”

For the 60% of the world de­fined as lac­tose in­tol­er­ant, fat con­tent is ir­rel­e­vant. Af­ter all, once the gene re­spon­si­ble for the pro­duc­tion of lac­tase has been switched off, it can­not be switched back on. But there is grow­ing sup­port for the idea that, over gen­er­a­tions, lac­tose tol­er­ance can de­velop to meet a grow­ing de­pen­dency on dairy foods.

“Though most black Africans are lac­to­sein­tol­er­ant,” Kurlan­sky writes, “the Mas­sai, who are cat­tle herders, are not. Those who are in­tol­er­ant tend not to have dairy in their cul­ture. Though most Eu­ro­peans drink milk to­day, we don’t re­ally know the orig­i­nal ex­tent of lac­tose in­tol­er­ance on the Con­ti­nent, be­cause cen­turies ago, milk drink­ing there was rare. Hard cheese and yo­gurt were pop­u­lar, but they do not con­tain lac­tose.”

And dairy in­tol­er­ance in gen­eral may be over-stated. China has long been re­garded as a lac­tose-in­tol­er­ant na­tion, largely on the ba­sis that so lit­tle dairy was con­sumed there. How­ever, the first men­tion of milk in China dates back to the Han dy­nasty (206BC-220AD). Since then, China’s more priv­i­leged classes have con­tin­ued to en­joy dairy prod­ucts. The Chi­nese are now eat­ing ever more dairy and it has be­come the world’s fourth-largest milk pro­ducer, af­ter In­dia, the EU and the US. To­day, al­most 40% of Chi­nese drink milk, and the use of in­fant for­mula is wide­spread.

In some cases, a di­ag­no­sis of lac­tose in­tol­er­ance may well be mask­ing symp­toms re­lated to a spe­cific pro­tein in the milk, rather than milk it­self. Keith Wood­ford, for­mer pro­fes­sor of agribusi­ness at Lin­coln Uni­ver­sity and au­thor of the 2007 book Devil in the Milk: Ill­ness, Health, and the Pol­i­tics of A1 and A2 Milk, says there is “in­trigu­ing ev­i­dence” that a lot of di­ag­nosed lac­tose in­tol­er­ance is ac­tu­ally A1 beta ca­sein in­tol­er­ance.

A1 and A2 pro­teins are dif­fer­ent forms of beta-ca­sein that make up about 30% of the

Breast­milk ice cream built on the dis­turb­ing growth in on­line sales of breast­milk to ath­letes and body­builders.

pro­tein con­tent in cows’ milk. Orig­i­nally, all cows had only the A2 pro­tein. The A1 pro­tein is the re­sult of a chance mu­ta­tion 5000-10,000 years ago in north­ern Europe, orig­i­nat­ing, it is thought, in the black and white cows in north­ern Ger­many and the Nether­lands that then car­ried their pro­tein­de­ter­min­ing genes around the world.

When di­gested, A1 beta-ca­sein re­leases beta-ca­so­mor­phin7 (BCM7), a mu-opi­oid with a struc­ture sim­i­lar to that of mor­phine. Sci­en­tists, be­gin­ning with Bob El­liott, pro­fes­sor of child health re­search at the Uni­ver­sity of Auck­land in 1993, have long sus­pected BCM7 is a prob­lem.

Mu-opi­oid re­cep­tors are re­spon­si­ble for peri­stal­sis, the sys­tem of mus­cle con­trac­tions that moves food through the di­ges­tive tract, but the pres­ence of BCM7 ap­pears to slow that process. The longer that process, the more fer­men­ta­tion oc­curs within the gut sys­tem and the more scope there is for bloat­ing and other mark­ers of di­ges­tive

dis­com­fort. Even if there are no ob­vi­ous di­ges­tive symp­toms, there are other au­toim­mune and neu­ral con­di­tions re­lated to BCM7, in­clud­ing di­a­betes, heart dis­ease, eczema and asthma.

A 2009 study in Rus­sia found for­mula-fed in­fants who could not metabolise BCM7 had de­layed mus­cle tone and psy­chomo­tor skills com­pared with in­fants fed only A2 milk. “We know with rea­son­able con­fi­dence that this slow­down of pas­sage will be oc­cur­ring in ev­ery­one,” Wood­ford says. “But how peo­ple re­act to that will de­pend on other as­pects of their sys­tem. Some peo­ple will get strong in­flam­ma­tory re­ac­tions, oth­ers won’t be aware of it.”

Ini­tially, there was strong re­sis­tance to A2 milk from ma­jor milk com­pa­nies. A 2009 re­view by the Euro­pean Food Safety Au­thor­ity found no link be­tween A1 milk and hu­man dis­ease but did not con­sider di­ges­tive prob­lems.

But the tide has changed – and dra­mat­i­cally. A2 milk is now sold in about 10,000 stores in China, 2000 in the UK and 6000 in the US. Nestlé has an A2 milk prod­uct in China, the world’s largest in­fant for­mula mar­ket. Chi­nese dairy gi­ant Meng­niu also has an A2 prod­uct.

“I think we can say with con­fi­dence ev­ery big dairy com­pany in the world ei­ther has an A2 pro­ject or it is look­ing at it very closely,” says Wood­ford.

The a2 Milk com­pany has re­cently dou­bled its stake in Syn­lait Milk, which makes in­fant for­mula for the lu­cra­tive Chi­nese mar­ket. This year, af­ter be­ing at odds for close to two decades, Fon­terra and a2 Milk joined forces to of­fer a jointly branded A1-free milk un­der the An­chor brand.

The in­creas­ing avail­abil­ity of A2 milk, Fon­terra’s Piper says, is not so much a re­sponse to health claims but con­sumer de­mand. “We be­lieve true lac­tose al­ler­gies are over­diag­nosed. Peo­ple say they have been lac­tose-in­tol­er­ant but they can drink A2 milk. But it’s the same lac­tose in A2 and in A1 milk, so it’s not just lac­tose in­tol­er­ance.”

Last year, a2 Milk’s shares hit a record as ap­petite in China and Aus­tralia for its in­fant for­mula prod­ucts saw an­nual prof­its im­prove 200% on the year be­fore, to $90 mil­lion. This year, profit reached $196 mil­lion.

“A decade or so ago, we were per­ceived to be a bit weird,” says Pe­ter Nathan, Asi­aPa­cific head of a2 Milk. “Now, as a busi­ness, it is com­mer­cially strong. The beauty of the A2 propo­si­tion is it is nat­u­ral, as op­posed to a func­tional milk that has been ar­ti­fi­cially changed such as lac­tose-free or other mod­i­fied milk.”

As de­mand for A1-free milk in­creases, providers of bull se­men are now se­lect­ing for A2-A2 genes. To­day, about 35% of Aus­tralia’s dairy herd is A2. In New Zea­land, it is slightly higher, largely the re­sult of a greater level of jer­sey genes in our herds (although farm­ers can change their herd to A2 with­out chang­ing breed).

Whether it is A1 or A2, low fat or whole fat, pas­teurised or raw, milk is not go­ing to be scratched from our shop­ping lists any time soon. To Kurlan­sky’s ques­tion, “Is dairy good for you?”, Rush re­sponds yes, but only as part of a broader plant-based diet.

“We are meant to be eat­ing a var­ied diet of food from dif­fer­ent groups – ‘not too much, mainly plants’. We need to look at the whole pic­ture, be holis­tic and also think of the world and its fu­ture rather than fo­cus on one food or nu­tri­ent.”

In Kurlan­sky’s home town of New York, peo­ple are drink­ing less milk, he says. But New Zea­land is hold­ing its own in the dairy statis­tics. Ac­cord­ing to the NZ Bev­er­age Coun­cil, milk is still the most fre­quently bought bev­er­age in the shop­ping trol­ley. And con­sumers are be­com­ing ever more dis­cern­ing.

Bou­tique dairy com­pany Lewis Rd be­gan with a top-shelf but­ter but hit its stride in 2014 when its Whit­taker’s choco­late milk flew out the door as fast as the check­out op­er­a­tors could scan the code. By then, global trends were swing­ing back to­wards dairy, but it is the pre­mium end of the milk mar­ket, says founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Pe­ter Cul­li­nane, that is show­ing growth.

It has now just launched its new “gold top” brand, a pre­mium or­ganic non­ho­mogenised A2 milk from a jer­sey herd in Mata­mata pack­aged in glass and re­cy­clable plas­tic bot­tles.

“A lot of our at­ten­tion in the last 100 years has been on the big­gest vol­umes at the low­est cost but New Zea­land should make the best dairy prod­ucts – we have the best raw in­gre­di­ents in terms of land and the farm­ing skills to

do that.”

“The beauty of the A2 propo­si­tion is it is nat­u­ral, as op­posed to a func­tional milk that has been ar­ti­fi­cially changed.”

Ze­bra milk is sim­i­lar to hu­man milk; horses, right, di­gest food in the same way as hu­mans.

Food his­to­rian Mark Kurlan­sky.

Pro­fes­sor Rod Jack­son: be­ware of but­ter.

Cult favourite The Big Le­bowski re­vived theWhite Rus­sian.

Milk, a source of nu­tri­ents, is handed out in more than 1400 New Zea­land schools.

Nu­tri­tion Foun­da­tion sci­en­tific direc­tor Elaine Rush; far left, re­searcher and A2 pro­po­nent Keith Wood­ford.

Pe­ter Nathan, of a2 Milk. Far right, Fon­terra’s Mark Piper.

Con­sumers are de­mand­ing al­ter­na­tive and high-end dairy prod­ucts.

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