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Think you're lactose intolerant? This dairy wants to prove you wrong

Think you're lactose intolerant? This dairy wants to prove you wrong
Blake Waltrip, CEO of the U.S. branch of the A2 Milk Co., says his milk, with an heirloom protein, will bring people back to dairy. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Blake Waltrip wants just five minutes with every California consumer who dumped milk for almond, soy or other dairy substitutes.

That bloating and distress that used to send you sprinting to the bathroom? It might not be what you think it is, he says.

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Waltrip, the U.S. CEO of the Australia-based A2 Milk Company, is betting that he can persuade hundreds of thousands of people who have diagnosed themselves as "lactose intolerant" that they're instead sensitive to a protein in the Holstein-dominated herds preferred by large-scale U.S. dairies.

He's pitching what might be called "heirloom" milk, from cows with what is considered the "original" gene for that protein.

It's a multimillion-dollar gambit for the publicly traded company, which is looking for a piece of the U.S. $2.4-billion market in almond, soy and other plant-based milks, an area that is expected to grow 13.2% through 2020 to $4.4 billion, according to the research firm Markets and Markets.

"California is the foundation for where we're going to expand on a national basis," Waltrip said. "It is where we're kicking this off."

That's why Waltrip was at the Americana at Brand in Glendale on a recent Saturday, beside a 10-foot-tall glass of milk, inviting passersby — his eye was on millennial moms — to blow bubbles through a straw and take a coupon for a free half-gallon of A2 milk.

After a "soft" California launch last year, A2 is available in 1,800 stores in California, including Ralphs, Sprouts, Safeway, Whole Foods and Raley's.

It's a back-to-the-future pitch, "bringing back milk as Mother Nature intended, so to speak, because [conventional] milk isn't the way Mother Nature intended it to be," said Waltrip, who was named U.S. CEO of A2 Milk in May.

Mass-produced U.S. milk is the product of a thousands-of-years-old fork in the road of animal husbandry, according to genome sleuths.

DNA can be a sloppy code. Small changes in its building blocks happen relatively frequently and by chance — somewhat like random typos in versions of a mass-produced book. Most don't matter much ("center" and "centre," for example, wouldn't change a plot), but some can change a humdrum plot to tragedy, such as the BRCA gene variation that is associated with breast cancer.

One chance variation in the gene that tells cows how to build the beta-casein protein wound up becoming the most common form when humans selectively bred cows from northern Europe — the black and white mottled Holstein cow depicted on "Ben and Jerry's" ice cream buckets, particularly.

That genetic change had important implications, because human gut enzymes that tear up the A1 protein create much more of a snippet known as beta-casomorphine-7, which has been shown to prompt an inflammatory response. That type of response is at the core of autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, asthma and allergies.

The nutritional science is by no means decided, and A2 Milk's initial claims of helping prevent diseases drew skepticism and outright rebuke from scientists and food regulators in Australia and New Zealand shortly after the product's launch there in 2004.

"We're not going there — right now digestion is the biggest issue," said Waltrip. "Consumers said this works — this works for me; this works for my children. I don't care if there's science behind it or not. If it works, it works."

A2 has worked hard to bolster its claims by funding academic studies.

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A small clinical trial in China showed that milk-sensitive people who tried A2 milk experienced a marked decrease in symptoms of gastrointestinal distress associated with A1 milk. A much larger one that is under review for publication reportedly bolsters the claim, according to the company's chief science officer, Andrew Clarke, who said a clinical trial also is pending in the United States.

In the meantime, Waltrip wants self-diagnosed consumers to sip A2 Milk, or try a bit in coffee, and decide for themselves.

"Very rarely in health and wellness products do you actually have a product where you can drink it and in a couple of hours know whether it works," said Waltrip, a former Celestial Seasonings herbal tea executive. "Most wellness products are leaps of faith and this is very different than that."

The cross-Pacific move by A2 Milk — part of an investment of as much as $25 million in foreign markets — comes at a time when U.S. consumers increasingly skip the science and try the diet. As much as a third of U.S. consumers now limit their intake of gluten, despite the fact that only about 1% of the population actually suffers from celiac disease, an immune response to the protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

Still others avoid genetically modified foods, despite scant evidence that it poses a direct risk to human health (though many anti-GMO consumers also cite compelling economic, environmental and sustainability arguments for their opposition).

The A2 Milk company does its genetic trick the old-fashioned way: using selective breeding to create "VIP" herds of cows at its dairy partners. It recently culled out a 1,000-head A2 herd for its Southern California dairy partner, Waltrip said.

Top breeding companies such as ABS Global Inc. have responded, offering certified bulls that have the necessary two copies of the A2 gene variant.

Theoretically, the fluid milk industry would be ready to swivel toward A2 if it catches on. Waltrip is not worried. The company has trademarked "A2 Milk" as a title, has several patents for its testing methods, and reports an 80% loyalty rate in Australia.

"The first mover usually is the one that seeds themselves in the minds of the consumers," Waltrip said. "That's our goal — be the first mover out there."

So far, dairy experts in California appear unimpressed.

"While the emerging studies on A2 milk are interesting, there currently is not sufficient scientific support for the proposed mechanisms and purported beneficial effects of A2 milk," said Maureen Bligh, a dietitian who heads the nutrition trends task force for the Dairy Council of California, an industry promotion organization.

About 19% of the U.S. population is considered lactose intolerant, though the U.S. National Institutes of Health has said the definition of that term varies too much to know the true prevalence. One study last year found that, when tested, almost 60% of the 232 people self-diagnosed as lactose intolerant were not.

If that were representative of the U.S. population, it could mean about 89 million people are potentially wrong about their relationship with milk, and at risk of not getting enough calcium in their diets.

"You can imagine this is a very significant opportunity," said Waltrip. "If I had five minutes with every consumer — they'd get it."

Waltrip may be wasting his time, according to Stewart Truswell, a professor of human nutrition at University of Sydney who found "no convincing or even probable evidence" in 2005 that the milk protein prevalent in U.S. herds "has any adverse effect in humans."

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The company's more modest claims of easier digestion "may be sufficient to impress  parts of the Chinese market, but the USA, which is the center of nutrition research, is surely going to need some harder health evidence."

Clarke, A2's chief science officer, said many more studies, some funded by the company, have been done since 2005 to bolster the case for A2 milk.

A 2015 clinical trial of 45 Han Chinese — an ethnic group thought to have milk sensitivity rates of more than 90% — found that the discomforting effects of consuming milk containing the A1 protein were decreased by consumption of A2-only milk. Clarke said a more recent one with 600 participants validated the finding.

"We have quite a tidy picture of science telling us what consumers have told us for years: I'm lactose intolerant but I can drink your milk," Clarke said.

Twitter: @LATgeoffmohan

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