Regular visitors to the Norwich Farmers’ Market are bound to see the Wyatt family selling fresh yogurt made from milk from Jersey cows.
Diane Wyatt founded Sweet Cow Yogurt with her siblings Sharon and Tom in 2009. Diane was initially drawn to Jersey milk because of its high butterfat content, which is ideal for making a rich and creamy yogurt.
But she later learned that Jersey milk is also a source of a milk-based protein called A2 beta-casein, which research suggests might be healthier than the other common protein, A1 beta-casein. A1 is prevalent in the milk of Holstein cows, which account for more than 90% of American dairy cattle.
“If A2 milk is truly a health benefit and people demand it, I want to be on that bandwagon,” Wyatt said.
While research into the benefits of A2 milk is promising, it isn’t a settled matter, and even proponents of A2 milk acknowledge that more research is required. As dairy farmers, and consumers, engage with these questions, some see the Jersey cow as a possible beneficiary.
Tucked away in the rolling hills of West Newbury, Vt., the Wyatt Family Farm sits at the end of a winding gravel road past a neighbor’s sign that reads, “Not a Thru Road / Your GPS is Wrong!” The 34-acre property is an expanse of green pastures and farmland where the Wyatts grow cherries, juneberries, pears, plums and strawberries to flavor their company’s yogurts.
The Wyatts bought Clover, their first Jersey cow, in 1999. Years later, they created their small, family-owned business, which now sells yogurt at 18 local stores and farmers markets. Clover has since died, but the Wyatts have expanded their herd and now have four Jerseys: three milking cows and a heifer.
“You can’t help but think that Jerseys are a beautiful cow,” Wyatt said.
Jersey cows are known for their distinctive light-brown color, black muzzles and dark hair at the ends of their tails. They originated on the small Isle of Jersey in the English Channel and are considered one of the oldest breeds of modern dairy cattle, first identified in England in the 1700s, and brought to the United States in the 1850s.
Today there are about 900,000 Jersey cows in the United States, making up about 9% of American dairy cattle as the second most common breed. Jerseys are typically smaller than the black-and-white Holsteins, growing to about 1,000 pounds, or two-thirds the size of a Holstein. But they produce a higher average of butterfat and protein, and are more efficient at converting the caloric energy of fodder into milk.
Milk from Jerseys, and from Brown Swiss, Guernsey and Normande cows, buffaloes, goats and sheep, are sources of the A2 protein, as is human breast milk.
The science of A1 and A2 emerged in 1993 when Bob Elliott, a scientist at the University of Auckland, conducted a study on the unusually high rates of type 1 diabetes among Samoan children in New Zealand. Elliott determined that A1 beta-casein from milk could be a cause.
He later teamed up with research scientist Corran McLachlan to analyze patterns in 20 different countries, where they found a connection between the consumption of A1 milk and the incidence of type 1 diabetes and heart disease. Then, in 1997, the International Dairy Federation published another study by Elliot and McLachlan demonstrating that A1 beta-casein caused diabetes in mice.
Cow’s milk is about 87% water, according to the International Journal of Livestock Research. The rest is a combination of lactose, protein, fat and minerals. Casein is a protein that makes up about 80% of milk’s protein content, and beta-casein is the second most prevalent type of casein. A2 beta-casein has been produced by “old world” cows for over 10,000 years. On the other hand, A1 beta-casein emerged from a genetic mutation in European cattle sometime in the last several thousand years. A1 is the dominant protein in the milk of Holstein cows, which have come to dominate the American dairy market.
John Bagnulo is a nutritionist based in Middlebury, Vt., who has taught at the University of Maine and the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C. Since 1999, Bagnulo has traveled around the country lecturing about the risks of A1 beta-casein and the benefits of A2.
“When I first started talking about A1 and A2, people looked at me like I had five heads,” Bagnulo said in an interview.
The debate gained more attention in 2007 when Keith Woodford, a professor of farm management and agribusiness at Lincoln University in New Zealand, published Devil in the Milk: Illness, Health, and the Politics of A1 and A2 Milk. For the book, Woodford analyzed more than 100 scientific papers and asserted that the digestion of A1 beta-casein forms a protein fragment called beta-casomorphin-7, or BCM7. Since BCM7 is a potent opioid with morphine-like characteristics, Woodford wrote, it can enter the bloodstream and bind with opioid receptors throughout the body, which Woodford links to type 1 diabetes, lactose intolerance and other autoimmune diseases.
“BCM7 simulates the beta cells of the pancreas, which always creates a risk of diabetes,” Bagnulo said.
In 2016, the research gained even greater international attention when a Chinese study published in Nutrition Journal found that participants consuming milk with both A1 and A2 proteins exhibited digestive discomfort, inflammation and inhibited cognitive speed and accuracy, whereas participants consuming purely A2 milk did not, even among those who were lactose intolerant.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 30 million and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, including up to 80% of African Americans and 95% of Asian Americans. Yet Bagnulo thinks the rates of lactose intolerance are overblown, and that many of these symptoms are reactions to A1 beta-casein, not to dairy itself.
Diane Wyatt has noticed a similar trend among customers and even her late father, who could never tolerate store-bought milk.
“I’ve had so many people say they were lactose intolerant until they tried our Jersey cow yogurt,” she said.
But research on the connection between protein types and lactose intolerance has been limited in the United States.
Bagnulo suggests that the lack of research is due in part to the power of the dairy industry and the reality that the nation’s dairy herd is overwhelmingly Holstein. He’s even broached the topic with representatives of major dairy companies such as Stonyfield and Maple Hill Creamery.
“When I’ve seen these people at major trade shows and asked them about going A2/A2, they look at me like I’m the antichrist,” he said.
The iconic black and white Holstein has long dominated the American milk market as a favorite of large dairy companies. The rise of Holsteins can be traced to the establishment of government support for milk prices in 1949, according to Kirk Kardashian, of Woodstock, the author of Milk Money: Cash, Cows, and the Death of the American Dairy Farm. This gave dairy farmers an incentive to produce more milk, which led to huge surpluses and, in the long run, to a mass consolidation of dairy farms across the country — from 4.5 million in 1940 to about 37,000 today. The trend is paralleled in Vermont, where there were 20,000 dairy farms in 1950, but fewer than 700 today.
According to the University of Arkansas Extension Service, American dairy farmers now produce three times as much milk as they did in 1960 with half as many cows. A single Holstein cow can produce a whopping 24,000 pounds of milk in a 305-day lactation cycle.
As health concerns have surfaced, Americans have grown increasingly wary of cow’s milk. In 2018, national milk sales dropped by $1.1 billion as Americans continued their break up with dairy, opting for alternatives such as almond, coconut, oat and soy. Indeed, the market for plant-based milk in 2018 grew by 20%, to $3.3 billion, and experts say it could reach as high as $34 billion by 2024.
Americans have cited antibiotics, hormones, fat and pasteurization as common reasons for giving up cow’s milk. Bagnulo shares these concerns, but he thinks they are symptoms of a larger problem associated with the mass production of Holstein milk and its A1 genetics.
“For the last 30 to 40 years, people have been hearing increasingly bad things about milk, but we have to take a step back and ask: What kind of milk are people actually consuming in this country? Pasteurized, never raw, with a major A1 component. I would argue that raw A2/A2 milk is among the top two or three foods you should consume every day.”
The Food and Drug Administration discourages the consumption of raw milk, citing “dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks to you and your family.” But a raw milk movement is well underway in Vermont and New Hampshire, and many consumers buy it directly from local farms.
“Raw milk provides access to bioactive substances like sulfated Vitamin D that are destroyed in the heat of pasteurization,” Bagnulo said. “None of the proteins are denatured, and its bioactive hormones help the immune system. I try to have a quart every day.”
But raw, A2/A2 certified milk is hard to find, even in Vermont. It’s sold at Kiss the Cow Farm in Barnard and Larson Farm in Wells, but state law still prohibits the sale of unpasteurized milk in retail establishments. Last June, Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill that expanded raw milk sales to consumer deliveries and farmers’ markets, but tensions with federal restrictions remain.
In New Hampshire, it’s legal for licensed dairy producers to sell unpasteurized milk at retail establishments. The Hanover Consumer Co-operative Society, among other stores, sells raw milk from the Piermont-based Robie Farm’s herd of Jerseys and Normandes, though it’s not certified A2/A2. The FDA still bans the interstate transport of unpasteurized milk, and since Vermont exports about 85% of its milk, it’s difficult to scale reliable access to raw milk.
“Milk coming out of the teat is completely clean,” said dairy producer Chris Gray, who founded Norwich Farm Creamery in 2016. “But when moving milk as a commodity, there’s always a risk of cross-contamination.”
Some A2 enthusiasts turn to goat milk as an alternative to standard milk with its pure A2 genetics and low lactose content. But critics say it contains less Vitamin B-12, which is important for the production of red blood cells. And for those who don’t love its ‘goaty’ flavor, Jersey cow milk might be a tastier and more accessible source of A2 for the average consumer.
Farmers of Jerseys and other old world breeds are responding by seeking out genetic testing for their herds, hoping to hear confirmation of A2/A2, which would allow them to label their products accordingly. But even breeds like Jerseys and Guerneys have been crossbred with Holsteins, so they can still be A1/A2, meaning they have a mix of the A1 and A2 proteins. Some farmers are breeding their cows with A2/A2 bulls to eliminate A1 from their herds’ gene pools, but the stakes are high for farmers interested in testing their cows.
“If your herd is not A2/A2, are you willing to undertake a long-term breeding program?” Gray said.
Diane Wyatt last year tested a newborn calf and was pleased to hear it was A2/A2. She hasn’t tested her other milking cows, but she still believes in the health of their milk.
That belief takes into account the milk’s higher fat content, which still faces an old stigma in the United States. In the 1980s and 1990s, the federal government changed the way America ate by issuing guidelines to reduce fats in favor of carbohydrates. Suddenly, Wheaties were in and whole milk was out, and the lower fat Holstein milk became an ideal source for 1% and skim milk.
In recent years, scientists have traced how America’s obesity rate rose as refined carbohydrates, sugar and other high-calorie foods replaced fat in the nation’s diet. The FDA now differentiates various kinds of fat, but it still endorses lower-fat products and recommends that less than 10% of daily calories come from saturated fats. Increasingly, dietary trends are more open to foods with a high saturated fat content, including milk, avocados, lean meats, nuts and olive oil.
“We have to get back to appreciating higher quality, high-fat food, not the white water that Holsteins produce,” Bagnulo says.
But are Americans ready to reverse course and embrace A2 milk with its creamy consistency and higher fat content? Gray said he thinks it’s a generational question.
“The oldest people in Vermont grew up with Jersey cows and used to get milk delivered to their homes with a layer of cream on top. But the baby boomers are the margarine generation — they ask for skim milk and run away screaming when I tell them our milk has more fat than whole milk.”
Gray observes the consumer demand for grass-fed and local dairy products, but noted that demand for milk from specific breeds of cow is less common. But because Jerseys and other old world cows are natural foragers, he thinks they’re the best suited for grazing on the rolling hills of Vermont, and that they could make further inroads in the grass-fed market.
“Big Holsteins are bred to stand in place — they hardly know how to move around and graze in pastures,” Gray said.
It’s also an issue of affordability. At the Co-op in Hanover, a half-gallon of grass-fed, certified A2/A2 Jersey milk sells for $6.79, but a half-gallon of Co-Op Whole Milk is only $2.19. The cost disparity is largely due to the productivity of Holsteins, as well as the cost-effective practices of maintaining large herds, feeding them cheap grains and confining them in barns.
Gray isn’t optimistic about Jersey milk’s ability to compete in the mainstream market against Holstein milk, but he thinks that cheese and other specialty products might be the most realistic way for farmers to provide consumers access to A2.
“Dairy farmers are the best business people in the world,” Gray said. “They’ll do anything to meet demand. Maybe it’s the consumers that have to be asking the right questions.”
Sam King is a student in Dartmouth College’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. He lives in New Haven, Conn. He can be reached at [email protected]