Milk Proteins Become Something More

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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We used to think that one of the major proteins in milk, casein, was mainly a nutritional reservoir of amino acids with which the infant builds its own body. But this protein now appears to be a complex, subtle orchestrator of the infant’s metabolism. When it’s digested, its long amino-acid chains are first broken down into smaller fragments, or peptides. It turns out that many hormones and drugs are also peptides, and a number of casein peptides do affect the body in hormone-like ways. One reduces breathing and heart rates, another triggers insulin release into the blood, and a third stimulates the scavenging activity of white blood cells. Do the peptides from cow’s milk affect the metabolism of human children or adults in significant ways? We don’t yet know.