a2 Milk USA CEO: Plant-based ‘milk’ labeling is misleading, but it’s not what’s killing the dairy milk market

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

a2 Milk USA weighs into the plant-based ‘milk’ labeling debate

Related tags Milk

The dairy lobby is justifiably frustrated about the widespread use of dairy-terms (milk, cheese, yogurt) to describe plant-based products, but it also needs to focus on its own game to understand why sales of fluid dairy milk are declining, argues The a2 Milk Company – which markets dairy milk it claims is ‘naturally easier to digest.’ 

 “I don’t like to see these ​[plant-based] products using the term ‘milk’ because they don’t equate to ​[dairy] milk in terms of natural wholesome nutrition,” a2 milk Company​ USA CEO Blake Waltrip told FoodNavigator-USA. “And they are not as natural as consumers think they are as they have to add all these additives ​[to try and achieve the same nutritional and sensory profile of dairy milk]. Milk is milk.”

And even if that doesn’t bother people (does it really matter if some of the nutrients in almondmilk are ‘added’ as long as they are there?), he said, common sense, coupled with legal standards of identity, are on the side of the dairy industry (plants don't produce 'milk').

“I’ve got a ton of respect for plant-based beverages. But they’re not ‘milk’ and I’d like to see the FDA come out with a clear ruling on this.”

That said, the fluid liquid milk hasn’t been steadily declining since the 1970s purely because almondmilk is stealing its thunder, he claimed, and dairy companies should look at all of the reasons why consumption is going down, from changing eating habits (declining consumption of breakfast cereal), to the lack of innovation in the category, the increase in alternative beverage options from bottled water to energy drinks, and the fact that many consumers feel digestive discomfort after consuming dairy milk.

“We are trying to bring those people back to dairy milk, which is naturally full of nutrition, by helping them to digest it.”

a2 milk usa square

Cows that naturally produce milk rich in A2 beta casein are identified using a non-invasive DNA test which analyzes a sample hair from the tail. These cows are then separated to form A2 herds and their milk is segregated in the supply chain.

While Jersey and Guernsey milk are high in A2, a2 Milk is sourced exclusively from dairy cows that produce milk containing the A2 protein exclusively, according to the a2 Milk Company.

We’re not asking people to make a leap of faith… you’ll know within an hour if it works for you

Digestive issues after drinking dairy milk are typically attributed to milk protein allergy (which can be severe, but is estimated​ to impact just 1-2% of young children and just 0.2-0.4% in the general population) or an intolerance to lactose (milk sugars). But if both have been ruled out and people are still​ experiencing mild digestive discomfort, something else may be going on, claimed Waltrip.

Human clinical research​*​ (funded by New Zealand-based a2 Milk Company), he said, lends credence to the claim that many consumers who believe they can’t tolerate lactose should really be blaming their discomfort on the A1 beta casein protein in milk products instead.

 “A quarter of US consumers say they experience digestive issues after consuming milk and we know that this can’t all be attributed to cow's milk allergyor lactose intolerance​.”

The a2 Milk Company, which made a big push into the US market in 2015, has developed a genetic test to identify cows that only produce A2 beta casein protein (most produce A1 and​ A2), so their milk can be segregated and marketed as a more ‘gut-friendly’ option. The a2 Milk brand has already achieved a 10% share of the Australian liquid milk market and is hoping to emulate that success in the US.

“We know that more people experience digestive discomfort after drinking milk than are likely lactose intolerant,” ​said Waltrip, “so we think the issue could be A1 beta casein.  But the great thing about our product is that we’re not asking people to make a leap of faith.

“Here’s what’s amazing. The feedback mechanism for consumers is simple. You can drink this product and within an hour they know whether it works for them or not.”


Larger human clinical trial is in the works

While the National Dairy Council says more human data is needed​ ​before a2 Milk Company’s hypothesis moves beyond the realm of theory into fact, a larger human clinical trial on US subjects is currently underway that should help to support the company’s claims, said Waltrip, who acknowledged that the first two human clinical studies were small.

“We are currently funding a new US clinical trial being conducted by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, that we hope will be published in a peer-reviewed journal in the June/July timeframe.

a2 milk carton

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m confident it will show that the lion’s share of people that think they are lactose intolerant are probably not ​[lactose intolerance arises from a deficiency in lactase, an enzyme that breaks down milk sugar, and is fairly simple to diagnose via a blood test, breath test or stool acidity test]. I think it will also show thatpeople are dramatically better able to digest milk that only has the a2 protein than milk with just a1, or a1 and a2 proteins.”

We’re doing exceptionally well in Trader Joe’s

As for the commercial angle, said Waltrip, who took the helm of the US business in May, “We’ve started in California, and we’ve had a lot of interest because retailers are looking for anything they can to bolster sales in the milk category, and there is an openness to exploring alternatives, from plant-based milks to specialty dairy milks like outs, and we’re seeing velocity gains with almost every retailer.

“We’re doing exceptionally well in Trader Joe’s, and in Whole Foods and Sprouts we have very strong movement, and we’re building and seeing pretty good success in conventional grocery stores.

“We’re planning to launch a chocolate a2 milk product and we’re also looking at single serve options and bigger sizes as right now we have a fairly simple line-up in half gallon cartons.”

He added: “I’ve been in CPG for 25 years and I’ve never seen a more significant opportunity.”

*Read the 2016 study about a2 Milk in Nutrition Journal​   2016 15:35 DOI: 10.1186/s12937-016-0147-z

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