Since time immemorial, we Indians have venerated the cow as our Mother and the milk she gives us as the elixir of life. One of our most beloved Gods, Krishna is a protector of cows. Cattle was considered as wealth in olden times. As per our indigenous medicine system, Ayurveda, the five cow-products or panch gavya, which include cow milk possess near-miraculous healing properties. Cow milk is believed to be the best nutritional supplement and ‘complete food’ provided by nature.
It is against this centuries-old background of milk consumption, that the current controversy about milk being harmful to human health has caught the attention of many Indians. If milk is the elixir of life, then how can it be harmful? The answer lies in the type of milk being consumed, or more specifically whether it is A1 milk or A2 milk.
While the more health-conscious urban Indians are aware of the debate between A1 and A2 types of milk, with A1 milk being harmful to human health and A2 milk being beneficial, majority of people still do not know what the A1-A2-milk debate is all about.
Understanding The Basics
What is A1 and A2 milk? To understand this in simple terms, we need to understand the composition of milk first. Milk is basically composed of 87% water and 13 % milk solids. Out of the milk solids, 4% are proteins, 4% is fat, 4% is lactose and the remaining 1% are minerals. Proteins are further divided into caseins and whey protein. Caseins are composed of 3 different types – alpha-casein, beta-casein and gamma-casein. Beta-casein is the 2nd most common type of caseins found in milk.
The classification of milk as A1 or A2 depends on the type of beta-casein present in it. Beta-casein is basically a chain of 209 amino acids, out which the amino acid at number 67 is the differentiating factor between A1 and A2 milk. In A1 milk, the 67th amino acid is Histidine and in A2 milk, the 67th amino acid is Proline.
Histidine allows a protein fragment or peptide made of 7 amino acids called Beta-casomorphin-7 (BCM7) to break away due to its weak bond, when acted upon by digestive enzymes during the digestion process. In contrast, Proline, which is present in A2 milk and which has a strong bond, does not allow the breaking away of the BCM7 peptide.
Breed Of The Cow
As per scientists, this difference in the 67th amino acid in the beta-casein chain may have occurred due to a genetic mutation in the cattle that migrated into northern Europe thousands of years ago. So, the classification of A1 and A2 milk depends on the breed of the cow.
Indigenous Asian and African breeds of cows as well as some older European breeds like the Guernsey, Jersey and Normande with origins in Southern France and the Channel Islands are known to produce A2 type milk. A1 beta-casein is found in the breeds of Europe (except for France), USA, Australia and New Zealand like Holstein, Friesian, Ayrshire and British Shorthorn.
The indigenous desi Indian cow or Bos Indicus produces high quality A2 milk. A2 milk from the humped breeds of the Bos Indicus like Gir, Ongole, Sahiwal, Tharpakar, Red Sindhi, Rathi, Kankrej, and Haryana is believed to be of exceptionally good quality.
Harmful Effects Of A1 Milk
The main culprit at the heart of the controversy is the BCM7 found in A1 milk. It has been called the ‘Devil in the milk’ as it does not get absorbed by the human body and can cause serious harmful effects on health.
BCM7 is an opioid peptide with dangerous narcotic properties that can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause narcotic effects on the human brain. It is an oxidant which promotes the growth of free radicals and triggers the release of histamines causing several allergies and gastric disorders. Various studies have linked BCM7 to several chronic diseases like asthma, autism, neurological disorders, heart disease, diabetes, ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, allergies and many more.
Medical researchers discovered the distinction between A1 and A2 milk in early 1990s in New Zealand through epidemiological studies. These scientists found a correlation between the prevalence of A1 milk in certain countries and the occurrence of certain chronic diseases in those countries. Dr. Keith Woodford, an agricultural scientist at Lincoln University, New Zealand, wrote the book ‘Devil in the Milk: Illness, Health, and the Politics of A1 and A2 Milk’ in 2007 that brought the controversy out in the public domain.
Many studies were conducted on the relation of BCM7 found in A1 milk with different types of chronic diseases, of which some studies like that of Robert Elliot and Murray Laugeson indicated that milk with the A1 beta-casein had negative effects on human health. A few later studies found the evidence to be inconclusive and recommended more research. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reviewed the scientific findings and found little or no evidence relating A1 milk with chronic diseases, while critics and proponents of A2 milk argued that the dairy industry and food safety agencies were keeping people in the dark about the dangers of A1 milk for vested interests. A research conducted by the National Dairy research Institute (NDRI) in India also indicated that A1 milk had adversely affected the immune system of infants and elderly people.
The global scientific community, large corporations and international food safety agencies continue to engage in polemics over their respective positions regarding the positive and negative effects of A1-A2 milk. However, the perception that A1 milk is harmful to human health, has taken root in the public psyche as more and more people all over the world are now seeking out A2 milk for its numerous benefits.
The Indian Context
In the Indian context, the A1-A2 milk controversy has brought to light the rather sad reality of the Operation Flood, also known as the White Revolution.
Operation Flood was launched in the 1970s with the aim of making India self-sufficient in milk production and was the largest dairy development program in the world. It went on to become one of India’s biggest success stories, which vaulted India into the enviable position of being the largest producer of milk in the world from being a milk-deficient country, surpassing the USA in 1998.
This unprecedented success led to large-scale dairy farming and mushrooming of milk-cooperatives in the country and also to the establishment of many top-class dairy institutions in the following decades. The Indian dairy sector rapidly developed into a full-fledged industry with the help of technological advancements leading to industrialized mass production of milk.
Decimation Of Desi Indian Breeds
A major occurrence during this time, one with far-reaching consequences, was that a large number of European cattle was imported into India and the indigenous Indian breeds were cross-bred with these European breeds in order to increase milk production.
Since the stipulated norms of the dairy industry were based on fat-content evaluation and not protein-content evaluation, it is likely that wittingly or unwittingly, the scientific analysis of the milk of these different breeds was undermined or simply overlooked. This event caused irreparable damage to the indigenous, desi breeds of Indian cow, the Bos Indicus altering their genetic structure forever.
Desi Indian cows were also replaced by importing the high-milk-yielding cross breeds like Holstein-Friesian (HF) as they were more commercially viable, to meet the demands of mass-production. Although these imported cattle gave higher yields, they also consumed more feed and required higher maintenance as they were not suited to the Indian climate. More importantly, they produced A1 milk which replaced the A2 milk of the desi breeds in the glasses of unsuspecting Indians every morning.
Indiscriminate cross-breeding and development of new hybrids over the decades has resulted in the tragic decimation of majority of the pure Indian native breeds, which produced the elixir of A2 milk. Some animal experts even say that these indigenous desi breeds disappeared within 10 years.
Today, what remains of the desi breeds are almost dying due to large scale neglect as all major Indian manufacturers and dairies produce A1 milk. The sad reality is, the White Revolution that Indians take so much pride in has almost wiped out the A2 milk from India which was known for its medicinal properties since ancient times.
Conserving Desi Indian Breeds
There is a tiny glimmer of hope in this grim scenario. A small group of Indians, mostly young professionals across India have come forward to establish dairy farms and gaushalas to protect and preserve the native Indian breeds of cattle and to supply good, wholesome A2 milk in the surrounding communities. As more and more urban, educated Indians seek toxin-free health and wellness options, the demand for organic A2 milk across the metros is growing steadily and these dairy farms are stepping in to meet them.
Most of these dairy farms, located in the peripheries of the big metros, prefer to keep their own stock of indigenous desi cow breeds like Gir, Ongole, Sahiwal etc., which are housed in clean surroundings, allowed to graze freely in the sun to soak up sunlight and fed locally grown organic fodder. Gaushalas like Pathmeda in Rajasthan are leading the way in protecting and restoring the desi Indian cow and providing healthy, nutritious A2 milk and milk-products to people.
Though much damage has been done, Indians at last seem to be waking up to the neglect of the native breeds of desi cows and the urgent need to protect and conserve them to promote the healthy A2 milk our children rightfully deserve.
Featured Image credit: https://telanganatoday.com/hyderabadis-fancy-taste-of-gir-cow-milk