Demystifying the new buzzword on your cheese label
Since the earliest days of American artisan cheese, the type of milk used to make curd has evolved rapidly. At first, it was all about goat, with pioneering Francophiles like Laura Chenel and Judy Schaad turning the country onto fresh Chevre. Then, still borrowing from European traditions, raw became a focus; then organic, then grass-fed. We’ve seen a renewed interest in vegetable rennets, followed by a push to turn almonds, cashews and coconuts into vegan artisan cheese.
Now, American cheesemakers are onto a different tip. Over the past few years, a slow buzz has been building in the industry around the latest innovation: A2 milk. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone. A2 milk, a naturally-occurring variety of cow’s milk that currently comprises 12 percent of the Australian retail dairy market, arrived on the American scene with surprisingly little fanfare.
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It was discovered in New Zealand in the early 1990s, when biologist Corran MacLachlan discovered a variant in the amino acid chain of the most common protein in cow’s milk (beta-casein). In case you haven’t brushed up on high school chemistry lately, it can be boiled down to this: cows can either produce A1 or A2 milk (or a hybrid of the two, because each parent donates one gene to their calf). The research found A2A2 milk is vastly better for the human body, and many who assumed they were lactose intolerant could, in fact, stomach A2 milk. It should be noted here that while lactose intolerance is caused by an absence of the enzyme necessary to break down milk sugars, A1 milk acts on the stomach by releasing an opioid, BCM-7, purportedly linked to inflammation, asthma, diabetes and autism.
Focus On America
The research around A1/A2 is spotty. Many of the studies supporting the claims were funded by the A2 Milk Co., an Australian outfit founded by MacLachlan that stands to profit from findings in their favor. This casts a long shadow on the positive lab results, but wariness in the scientific community hasn’t stopped A2MC from launching a U.S. bid. Their milk is in California stores now, and they plan to spread the A2 gospel nationally by 2018 — unless artisan dairy farmers and cheesemakers beat them to it.
But why would the farm-to-table movement get involved in this antipodean mess? “Our decision to focus on A2A2 milk was customer-driven,” said Paul Herndon, a raw milk dairy farmer, cheesemaker and owner of Pleasant Meadow Creamery in Sagle, ID. “I met a customer who swore up and down that when he drank A2A2 milk, his chronic back pain would relieve within a week’s time.” Another of Herndon’s customers reported a cessation of lifelong lactose intolerance. After testing his herds, Herndon sold the A1 heifers and now only breeds with A2 bull semen.
Customer inquiries were also behind cheesemaker Marci Shuman’s investigation of A2, at Cascadia Creamery in Trout Lake, WA. They now advertise the benefits of A2 prominently, and their enthusiasm is mirrored by small farmers all over the States — but not every A2 attempt translates to a trust in the research.
In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Deck Family Farm tested their herds after several customers and an intern inquired, and now update their website regularly to show a cow-by-cow breakdown of test results. This is less an endorsement of A2, though, than it is an effort to appease curious customers.
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“We’re not planning to convert 100 percent,” says Deck Family Farm’s owner, Christine Deck. “I do not buy into much 100 percent, especially when it comes to the latest foodie trends.”
About 10 years ago, a customer of Shelburne Farms, in Shelburne, VT, became fascinated with the findings from Down Under, and paid to have some of Shelburne’s cows tested. Farm Manager Sam Dixon chose 10 heifers, four of which came back as 100 percent A2, but the award-winning Cheddar operation has yet to perform any testing of its own.
“They really don’t go out of their way to look for those components when they’re selecting for breeding,” says Tom Perry, cheese sales manager at Shelburne. Their team pays more attention to fat and protein levels necessary for cheese quality, characteristics that are breed-specific. For a closed Brown Swiss herd like Shelburne’s, or for any European cheesemaker producing a name-controlled cheese that relies on isolated breeds, A2 genetics are practically a nonstarter.
The Guernsey breed is thought to possess nearly 100 percent A2 genes, whereas ubiquitous Holsteins are almost entirely A1. While Holsteins can be found dominating factory farms across the United States, there are very few operations marketing themselves as Guernsey-only. This is likely due to the breed’s low output — in a day, a Guernsey produces around 6 gallons of milk to a Holstein’s 15.
The Guernsey’s Genes
“Guernseys produce less,” says Adrian Bota, founder of the Guernsey-only Origin Milk Co., located in Strongsville, OH, “But it is a much higher quality milk.” Bota started his dairy farm just a few years ago, with the intention of capitalizing on the marketing potential of Guernseys’ superior milk; according to him, they are the only farm bringing Guernsey-only A2 milk direct to consumers.
Most Guernsey farmers pool their milk with that of several other farmers in a co-op model, which helps with the low output issues. But because of how much mixing occurs, it’s difficult for commodity farmers to create a 100 percent A2 product. Family outfits that do all their own bottling and cheesemaking have more control.
“It is indeed much easier for artisanal operators to switch to A2,” says Keith Woodford, an honorary professor at New Zealand’s Lincoln University, whose book “The Devil In The Milk” is considered the seminal tome on A2. “These companies see A2 milk as an opportunity. In contrast, the big companies see A2 as a threat.”
As the liquid milk market has plummeted in recent years, struggling dairy farmers have sought ways to attract new customers or add value to their existing products, either by labeling them “grass-fed” or by turning their milk into curd. American artisan cheese sprung, in part, from these motives, so it would make sense for the cheese industry to be curious about this new opportunity for differentiation. But unlike grass-fed, raw or organic, it’s unclear if the benefits of A2 translate into cheese.
“As the cheese ages out, I don’t know how necessary an A2 protein chain would be,” says Perry. Even Woodford echoed this sentiment, saying there is still much to learn about A1’s reaction in the cheesemaking process.
Cheese lovers who struggle with lactose indigestion will recognize the notion that soft cheeses are harder on the stomach than aged ones. The explanation for this has always been that as cheese ages, lactose is converted to less harmful lactic acid. According to a 2008 study in the International Dairy Journal,though, BCM-7 is also lower in hard cheeses. This is likely due to the process of proteolysis, also taking place as cheese ages, causing milk’s protein chains to break up. The older a cheese made with A1 milk gets, the less likely it is that the chain responsible for BCM-7 will still be intact.
Good news for cheese eaters, but still not enough to get everyone on board. The American Cheese Society declined to comment on A2, citing an absence of member interest; the National Milk Producers’ Federation, Dairy Farmers of America and National Dairy Council are all calling for more research or interest before they get involved. But for an industry casting so much doubt on the trend, they’re surprisingly invested in it. Most bull semen catalogs now list the A1/A2 credentials of their specimens, while Shelburne says their heifer catalogs include this information now, too. The Weston Price Foundation, longtime supporters of the organic and raw milk movements, now list A2 credentials next to the farms in their Real Milk directory. In the United States, A2 Holsteins have already been developed. Despite their apparent disinterest, the industry appears to be keeping more tabs on this than they let on.
“It has the potential, if the science really matches up to it, to be in line with either the organic movement of the mid 90s, or the whole value-added movement of the early 2000s,” says Perry. “And if it’s something that can help save family farms, that’s great.”
So where does that leave cheese consumers who are hearing more about, and growing more anxious about, the dangers of A1 each day? One argument A2 milk proponents like to throw around is that A2 milk has the same protein structure as human breast milk, and the same is true of sheep’s and goat’s milk. While no one is selling cheese made with human breast milk — at least not legally — there is fortunately plenty of Chevre and Manchego to tide over the worrywarts.