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Is milk a silent killer?

GENERATIONS have been sold a wholesome, nutricious food that's great for children's bones. But is the milk we drink damaging our health from the very first sip?

At some time in 1993 Dr Jeremy Hill, expert at milk-protein biochemistry for the New Zealand Diary Research Institute (NZDRI), accepted a telephone call from Professor Bob Elliott researching the incidence of diabetes in pacific island children growing up in New Zealand.

Elliot was curious at the ten-fold increase in diabetes in children on the mainland and had narrowed his search for a cause down to environmental or dietary factors. He suspected a link to the increased consumption of dairy produce in New Zealand. He knew Samoan children drink the white stuff far less often.

Without thinking about the possible implications, Hill suggested Elliot should try looking at the proteins. There could be something in the beta-casein consumption, he suggested.

Biochemists had long known there were two major types of beta-casein protein in milk, known as A1 and A2. One can imagine how the conversation played out.

“Yea, they differ in just one of the 209 amino acids. Position 67 A1 has histidine, while A2 has proline.”

“Asian cattle Bos indicus produce A2, while the Western cattle Bos taurus produce A1. We think there was a mutation some 8000 years ago that mainly spread in the West, though the incidence is very regional.”

“Could it be a significant difference? It's only one amino-acid in the entire protein chain.”

“I think it's probably a long shot. But if I was looking, given the possible causes you've already ruled out, I'd take a look.”

A1 protein is broken down in the body and forms a opiate called BCM7. Hill's subsequent work with mice discovered that nearly 50% of the mice fed A1 developed diabetes while none of the mice fed A2 showed any sign of the disease. Furthurmore, feeding the A1-fed mice an opioid inhibitor prevented the disease from developing.

It was a stunning result. Yet even that was insignificant when compared to the revealed evidence on heart disease.

When asked to review Hill's work, Dr Corran McLachlan, senior of the School of Biological sciences in Auckland, found that world wide deaths from heart disease followed a very similar pattern to that of diabetes.

Could both diseases have the same cause: milk-protein?

McLachlan was convinced. From then on until his untimely death in August 2003 he dedicated much of his work to uncovering the truth and attempting to establish a market for purely A2 milk. Yet his was not the only premature death in the story.

In 2000 McLachlan joined with New Zealand entrepreneur Howard Patterson. Patterson immediately suggested the NZ dairy board, later to become part of Fonterra – a company responsible for roughly 40% of the world's traded dairy produce – and his A2 Corporation join forces to market A2 milk.

“You could be facing a serious long tail class action if the Beta-casein protein is proven to cause heart disease and diabetes. I suggest we turn the national herd to A2 milk, before you're hauled into court.”

The dairy industry had a lot to lose. To promote A2 milk as not causing heart disease or diabetes one first had to admit A1 milk was dangerous to health, or at the very least, not as healthy as the current advertising was suggesting. It could open the door to litigation quicker than a tsunami rushes up the beach. But to stay silent in the face of mounting evidence would make the situation worse in the long run. Asbestos and tobacco companies are still reeling from the effects of just such denial, and evidence was mounting.

By 2003 McLachlan had illustrated the strong correlation between heart disease and A1 milk consumption across the globe and had also shown there was no such correlation for A2 milk. He even showed, after all the years of speculation, why the French can quaff cheese and wine and dairy without dropping dead while the English cannot. The French national herd is largely A2.

Dr Murray Laugesen and Professor Elliott continued Elliot's work with animals at Queensland University. By early 2003 experiments showd that A1 milk caused heart disease in rabbits while A2 did not.

But as the evidence grew more compelling, so the discussions between Fonterra and the A2 corporation inflamed, finally ending up in court. The A2 corporation attempted to force Fonterra to put health warnings on milk containing A1 beta-casein, while Fonterra argued the science had not been settled. It looked like the start of a long and bitter fight.

Then without warning, Howard Patterson dropped dead. Alone in a Fiji hotel room he choked on a crisp.

And that might have been the end of the A2 Corporation, with its two founders dead within six weeks of each other. But in quiet corners of New Zealand and Australia you can still buy A2 milk. Its packaging is plain, without any health claims, and it sits among the other milk as if there is no controversy.

Yet the controversy remains. If the evidence is correct, A1 milk could be the biggest cause of premature death in the western world, and that's just heart disease. The complex bio-chemical pathways thrown into dissarray by A1's break down into BCM7 are linked to autism, scizophrenia, allergies, and a host of auto-immune diseases.

Think of the litigation waiting in the wings. You could put this in a novel and people would think it was fiction.



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