14 Feb 2003

Media hype is high over the news that fresh milk similar to a mother’s will soon be on sale. Abit of Turin, the producers, are happy, so are consumers, pediatricians and, apparently, doctors at the city’s Sant’Anna neonatal unit. The cherry on the cake is that even the cattle that are going to produce the milk are happy! The magic new product will be called DHAbit and, reading the yesterday’s Italian papers, it sounds like the greatest invention since sliced bread.

I spoke about it with Roberto Rubino, director of the Experimental Institute of Zootechnics in Bella (Potenza), a milk expert who happens to be the only Italian winner to date of the Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity.

How can a cow’s milk be similar to a woman’s milk?

The answer is that it can’t. Cow’s milk is ‘programmed’ to make cheese, so it contains a high percentage of casein. A woman’s milk is ‘designed’ for new-born babies and, fortunately, has very low levels of casein.

Judging from what the papers are saying, the high DHA content has antitumoral properties. What do you reckon?

I don’t agree. DHA, docosanoic acid, is an unsaturated fat, so its presence in milk is a good thing, seeing that in milk it’s usually saturated fats that prevail. But as far as I know, DHA doesn’t possess miraculous properties. In the organism, it performs structural functions and hence has an important role in the development and maturation of the brain, the reproductive apparatus and the retinal tissue, but it isn’t an essential acid. What it has to do with the prevention of tumors is something that escapes me.

I’ve read that the production of this milk would improve animal welfare. An ANSA news agency bulletin says that, ‘the diet needed to produce enriched milk contains unicellular algae, expanded (OGM-free), soya, safflower oil, linseed oil and vitamin E.

As you can see they’ve achieved this result by feeding cattle with a variety of oils and algae. Try to imagine the same kind of thing happening for the human diet and think how happy and fit we’d be. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people around who exploit animal feed for their own ends and then claim that this way animals are happy. Any forced, unnatural diet creates imbalances and disturbs the animals. To say they’re happy is only a way of salving the consciences of producers and consumers.

People don’t realize that, in nature, everything is interlinked. We aren’t a sum of molecules. We’re the result of millions of interactions. It’s not enough to introduce a molecule where there wasn’t one before to solve a situation. A forced diet will introduce the elements you mentioned into the milk. But what do we know about the other parameters? The quality of the milk is influenced, above all, by diet and the animal’s productive yield. The bottom line is that the best quality milk is produced by cattle at pasture that are free to form their own feed ration by choosing the grass they want. Here, by quality, I mean a higher content of all the important nutritional qualities of milk: aroma, antioxidants, unsaturated fatty acids, conjugate linoleic acid, and so on. Contrariwise, the quality of milk from cattle that live in byres on a forced diet and produce large quantities is poorer. If a milk is good, it needs nothing else; all these experiments are always carried out using ‘industrial’ milk..

So what would you say to mothers who aren’t sure whether to give their babies this new milk or not?

I’m not familiar with it. But I am familiar with quality milk and I’d advise them to search out that of traditionally fed grazing animals.

Cinzia Scaffidi, a journalist, is the head organizer of the Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity

Translation by John Irving

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