Milk has been slowly losing market share for the past decade to plant-based competitors like oat, almond and soy. But the cows are mounting a comeback: There’s a newer milk on the market, A2, that promises ease of digestion and reasonable prices.
If you scan the dairy sections in supermarkets like Whole Foods, Wegmans, or Sprouts, you find cartons of milk or half and half, all declaring their A2 status, sometimes written as A2A2 or A2/A2.
“You can have a delicious, indulgent dairy ice cream experience, but also be supporting your digestion and your gut health using A2 dairy,” says Alec Jaffe, the founder of Petaluma, California-based Alec’s Ice Cream. Alec’s Ice cream, Trimona Bulgarian Yogurt, various cheeses, butters and ghees are being produced with A2 milk.
This A2 signifier is growing in popularity, taking its place among labels including USDA Organic, non-GMO, grass-fed or humane raised. It’s about the same price or slightly more as other USDA Organic name brand milks. Some of the most recognizable A2 brands are a2 Milk Company, originally from New Zealand, the northern California based Alexandre Family Farm and Family Farmstead Dairy in Upstate New York.
The Proteins Have it
“It’s a big selling point,” says Jaffe of his ice cream using A2 milk. “As we’re doing events and demos,” adds Jaffe, “more and more people are coming in saying, ‘Oh, A2, I’ve tried that,’ or ‘My friend was talking about that.’ So the awareness is definitely growing pretty quickly.”
A2 milk, which is cow milk, is said to be easier to digest for most people who get gassy or bloated from drinking most conventional cow milk on the market. What makes A2 milk different is the absence of the A1 beta-casein protein—most cow milk sold in the US has both A1 and A2 beta-casein proteins. Not to be confused with lactose-free milk, which is cow milk with lactase enzymes added post-milking, A2 milk comes out of a cow that is tested to only produce A2 milk. A2 milk tastes like regular milk, unlike lactose free milk that can often seem sweeter.
It’s thought that A2 beta-casein protein mutated into A1 thousands of years ago in some herds in Europe. A majority of Jersey and Guernsey cows (but not all) in the US have a higher percentage of A2 genes than Holsteins, for example. Farmers test the cow’s DNA from the tail hair to find out a cow’s A1 and A2 genetic makeup.
In fact, the US A2 milk market was estimated at $660.84 million in 2022 and $728.11 million in 2023, according to a new report by Research & Markets, and is projected to reach $1,570.14 million by 2030, growing at a CAGR of 11.42%. The global A2 milk is expected grow to $4.8 billion by 2030, according to Custom Market Insights.
Cow Milk has the Lion’s Share
Considering the vast number of plant-based milk options on the market it might seem as if consumers are running away from dairy milk, but according to a report by Information Resources Inc, “dairy milk sales approached $15.7 billion” in annual sales ending in November 2022, while non-dairy milks sales were $2.4 billion. Only 3% of the US population was vegan in 2018, according to Gallop poll, the last comprehensive data collected on the subject, which experts estimate to be only 6% today.
Supermarket freezers might have consumers thinking non-dairy frozen desserts will soon replace dairy ice cream, but 97% of ice cream sold in the US is dairy-based, according to Jason Karp the CEO Cosmic Bliss. In March 2022 Karp rebranded the formerly vegan brand Coconut Bliss, to Cosmic Bliss, which now offers a line of dairy-based ice cream.
Located in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, Alec’s Ice Cream has grown rapidly since launching in 2021. The 14-person company sells pints of ice cream in 1,500 locations across the US. Found in Whole Foods and Sprouts, among other stores, the colorful pints are illustrated with a personified earth and cow happily palling around.
Jaffe, who grew up in Southern California, worked at startups after college. When the last startup shutdown, Jaffe started making ice cream at home for his friends and family and eventually wanted to turn it into business. Jaffe found a shuttered small ice cream making facility for sale in Petaluma, where he moved into in January 2020.
“If ice cream doesn’t taste good, what’s the point of eating ice cream?” Jaffe asks rhetorically, “So many times, ice creams that are trying to do better often sacrifice on taste.” Peanut butter, fudge and honeycomb is the latest of Alec’s seven flavors, time will tell if it will replace the bestselling flavor, honey, blueberry and lavender.
Lactose Intolerance? Maybe Not
Many of those who get bloated or gassy, or experience cramping after consuming dairy, often assume they are lactose intolerant (MDs can conduct a test) but they could just be having a reaction to the A1 beta-casein protein. Jaffe describes being at a dinner party and talking to a guests who hadn’t eaten ice cream in 15 years because it caused swelling. “They took a little light taster bite of our ice cream because they heard about it and they were curious,” recalls Jaffe., “and once they didn’t have that reaction, they just couldn’t stop.”
While those in the dairy industry are delighted at the prospect of consumers drinking more milk and eating dairy-based products spurred on by A2 milk, but science behind A2 milk “is not quite clear yet,” according to Michael DeAngelis, of the nonprofit New England Dairy.
“The health claims are difficult to grasp, and the science isn’t quite settled,” writes Federico Harte, PhD, in an email, “Whether farmers and scientists take A2 milk seriously may not be that important since it’s already sold across the US, and consumers seem to enjoy it.” Dr Harte is a professor at Pennsylvania State University and VP of the American Dairy Science Association.
According to a recent survey by Morning Consult, 69% of the millennial respondents said that dairy milk is more difficult to digest than plant-based milk, which was either a “major” or “minor” reason they buy non-dairy milk. This 69% could simply be A1 beta-casein protein intolerant, and could drink A2 without bloat or gas.
The cost of A2 milk is on par or slightly more than premium organic milk. For example, at a New York City Whole Foods, a half-gallon of organic Alexandre Family Farm A2 whole milk costs the same price as Maple Hill, also organic, $.50 more than Organic Valley, and $1.00 more than Horizon; a quart of the a2 Milk Company’s half and half, which is not organic, costs $5.69. Products like yogurt, cheese and ice cream made with A2 milk are similar in cost to the array of dairy products on the market made with conventional milk; a pint of Alec’s Ice Cream costs $8.49.
But First, What is Bulgarian Yogurt?
Atanas Valev, the founder of Trimona Bulgarian Yogurt uses A2 milk from a Pennsylvania Amish farm in his yogurt. “I have done probably over 500 demos in stores, mostly in Whole Foods,” says Valev, originally from Bulgaria. After the questions about Bulgarian yogurt (a slightly tart, tangy yogurt, made the way Valev’s Bulgarian grandmother made it) people at demos asked about A2A2 milk, featured prominently on the colorful label as of three years ago. Valev estimates 1% of the people at in-store demos knew what A2 milk was, compared to 30% today.
Trimona’s sales have doubled over the past year, which Valev calls “insane” as they haven’t done much marketing in the past six months to a year. “We were so happy!” he adds. “It was selling even if it wasn’t on sale. The price was not the reason. So obviously, this A2 story got to the consumer somehow—it still puzzles me,” Valev says.
Valev hasn’t heard any complaints from customers experiencing digestive discomfort. “But you cannot say, ‘Oh, A1 milk is the devil for sure!’ We can’t say that either,” Valev underscores, “because all the research continues.” Research articles have been written and tests conducted; the consensus is that A2 milk is easier to digest than most conventional milk containing both A1 and A2 beta-casein protein.
Dairy Farmers are A2 Curious
The a2 Milk Company, originally from New Zealand, is a pioneer in the A2 milk sector, its US launch was in 2015. Its various products, including A2 chocolate milk made in partnership with Hershey’s, are sold in more than 26,000 stores nationwide. The company sources A2 milk from five regional US dairy farms. It reported a 30% revenue increase in the US for the 2022 fiscal year.
Dairy farmers across the country are not clamoring to switch their herds to all A2 milk producing cows, but many are A2 curious. Alan Bjerga of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), a trade association representing dairy cooperatives, says that although A2 milk has been around for 20 years, “ultimately, it falls in the category of niche.”
However, dairy farms like Alexandre Family Farm, where Alec’s Ice Cream sources their milk and Braum’s, made the switch to A2 milk producing cows, as well as a wave of smaller regional family farms like Ten Finns Creamery, a fifth generation Finnish dairy farm in Minnesota, Snowville Creamery in Pomeroy, Ohio, Miller’s Bio Farm in Pennsylvania, as well as Nordic Creamery and Milkhaus Dairy in Wisconsin.
Consumer products like baby food company Serenity Kids makes formula with A2 milk, as does ReThink Ice Cream, which is also lactose-free because the lactase enzyme is added, as well as Origin’s suite of A2 dairy products.
Despite the strong A2 milk sales and growing consumer market, awareness is quite low. It could be due to consumers’ cumulative revulsion from drinking skim or 1% milk at school, as most schools systems in the US do not allow whole milk to be served. Or, perhaps dairy farmers or dairy-based consumer product companies wanting to keep a low-profile, due to the vilification of the dairy industry by those who have ethical objections to animals on farms for human consumption or the environmental impact.
Cows: Not the Villains They’re Made Out to be
One of Jaffe’s motivations to start Alec’s Ice Cream, was to make a delicious ice cream that didn’t make cows “horrible villains of the climate,” as he describes, but rather to demonstrate “how cows can actually be a real part of the solution.” When Jaffe started making ice cream for friends, he remembers thinking, “Why is there no amazing tasting ice cream out there that is also is talking about sustainability?”
While not all A2 milk is produced on Regenerative Organic Certified farms like the Alexandre Family Farm, which was the first, but many small farms, like Ten Finns Creamery, do not use pesticides and are converting to more regenerative practices. While some vegans and environmentalists might vilify dairy farmers and those who make products with dairy, a common saying that Jaffe uses is, “It’s not the cow, it’s the how.”
“It’s industrial agriculture versus regenerative agriculture,” says Jaffe when asked about customers concerned with dairy farming, “not cows versus plant-based.” Jaffe believes regenerative farming is helpful in repairing the planet.
According to Jaffe, a regenerative farming mimics nature to create positive agricultural and ecological outcomes, unlike industrial farming, which tried to control nature. “Nature is not just a bunch of plants,” says Jaffe, “there’s animals involved too.” Animals eat plants, which maintains a healthy level of vegetation, adds natural compost to soil, providing important nutrients, which allows plants to grow. “It’s a full circle,” Jaffe says.
More farms like the Alexandre Family Farm, are Regenerative Organic Certified, which met all of Jaffe’s values when he sourced Alec’s Ice Cream’s milk, making Alec’s Ice Cream the first certified regenerative organic ice cream.
Jaffe recounts meeting someone who hadn’t eaten dairy ice cream in six years due to ethical objections to dairy farms. “We educated them about the farms that we’re working with and they’re like, ‘Okay, this meets my ethical values of what I’m really looking for and can kind of see the both sides of the of the issue,’” Jaffe recalls. Alec’s Ice Cream was their first dairy ice cream they ate since deciding to stop eating dairy.
Future of A2 Milk
Time will tell if A2 milk will become more mainstream in the US milk market. While Bjerga of the NMPF, also found the science behind A2 milk “shaky,” he adds that consumers will ultimately buy it en masse if they feel better while drinking it. “No one can put themselves in the body of an individual consumer and say how that milk interacts with them, it’s a highly individual experience,” says Bjerga, “if they prefer to have their milk drinking experience through A2? Thank you for drinking milk!”
Correction: Alec’s Ice Cream is sold in 1,500 locations in the US.
This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.