The first breakfast I ate as a newcomer to Canada consisted of an omelette and a tall glass of chocolate milk.
Later that day, my stomach started making very audible churning noises, the first time it had ever done that. Clueless as to why this was happening, I dismissed it as nerves or my body’s way of acclimatizing to the new surroundings.
As days passed and I continued drinking milk. My roiling stomach persisted. I came to accept this as my new normal, not knowing what to do.
Many newcomers to North America find themselves in situations similar to mine when they suddenly find it impossible to digest milk here, despite having consumed it all their lives back in their home countries.
Immigrant Harmandeep Singh too experienced great discomfort when he tried drinking milk available at local grocery stores in Toronto.
“It took quite a few rounds of initial medication and doctors’ appointments for us to figure out that it was the milk itself that was the issue,” said Singh, who moved to Toronto from India as a permanent resident.
Watch Akrit Michael’s report from Sheldon Creek Dairy:
For him, trying to consume dairy meant “either constantly going to the washroom or having the need to throw up right away,” he said. His stomach went for a toss even with treats like ice cream from Dairy Queen.
“Since then, I’ve had to drink almond milk or lactose free milk as living without milk is not really an option for me,” he said.
International student Anusha Bhardwaj, who came to Toronto to study at Centennial College last year, faced a similar problem.
“Back home, I used to love drinking milk and consuming dairy products like cottage cheese and buttermilk. However, this drastically changed when I came to Canada,” she said.
In the past few months she has somewhat developed her ability to digest dairy here, but she says her overall gut health is just not as good as it used to be.
Cow genetics, milk processing at play
The mysterious lactose intolerance many newcomers report experiencing may be caused by two reasons: the way milk here is processed, and entirely different cows.
Homogenization is the physical process of passing milk through a very fine sieve that has microscopic holes. The larger fat molecules in the milk are evenly broken down into smaller particles, thus making a homogenous mixture.
The process increases the milk’s shelf life — but it also changes the milk’s molecular structure and, as a result, the way people’s bodies absorb it. Bagged milk available in countries in Asia, for instance, does not undergo homogenization.
The second factor is the kind of proteins that are found in the milk. They’re different in North America than in other parts of the world.
“It has been shown that in a study of 45 Chinese subjects, consumption of milk containing A1-casein was associated with increased gastrointestinal inflammation, delayed gut transit, and decreased cognitive processing speed and accuracy compared to subjects given A2 milk,” said Christine Baes, president of Canadian Society of Animal Science and a professor specializing in dairy genomics at the University of Guelph.
“While this study was small, it was peer-reviewed and subsequently published and it offers an interesting hypothesis for further independent studies,” Baes said in an email.
Notably, cow breeds that are popular in North America and Europe produce milk that has a majority of A1-casein, while the breeds popular in Asia produce milk almost exclusively containing A2-casein.
The presence of A1 and A2 proteins in milk is a genetic trait, much like the colour of hair in humans. A cow inherits this trait from her mother (heifer) and father (sire). If the cow inherits a combination of A1 and A2 genes, it will produce milk containing both proteins. Alternatively, if the cow has two parents with A2 genes, it will naturally produce milk containing only the easier-to-digest A2 protein.
Hence, milk containing A2 protein, which is commonly known as A2 milk, may be easier for some people to digest.
A2 milk has its fair share of naysayers, who believe that its claimed health benefits are nothing but a marketing hoax and there is no conclusive scientific proof of the purported benefits.
“There needs to be larger, independent studies done before any meaningful conclusions can be made but it does provide an interesting hypothesis,” Baes said.
Until about seven years ago, A2 milk was not available in Canada and was only purchasable in the U.S. where it was sold by a New Zealand-based company called A2 Dairy.
Back in 2013, Sheldon Creek Dairy, based in Loretto, Ont., was the first dairy farm in Canada to produce A2-only milk. To date, it remains one of only a handful of dairies in Canada that produce this niche variant of milk.
The dairy is run by Marianne Edward and her family. They own 83 Holstein cows, 55 of whom have been genetically bred to exclusively produce A2 milk.
“A lot of people tell us ‘I can’t drink milk,’ ‘It makes me feel bloated,’ ‘It makes me gassy,’ and then they can drink our milk,” said Edward in a video interview.
By offering A2 milk, her company does not aim to bring about a milk revolution in Canada.
“Our goal is simply to offer a specialized niche variant of milk, that people may find easier and more enjoyable to consume,” she said.
Although not very popular, this milk is available at some supermarkets and health food stores in and around the GTA, like the Big Carrot on Danforth Avenue and St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto.
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Having drunk ordinary bagged milk during my first few months in Canada, I did begin to develop a mild tolerance to the milk here, however, my gut was still not in its optimum state.
As of the day this story’s being written, I have personally been drinking A2 milk for about a month and a half, and my digestive health has never been better.