Your Facebook questioned answered: Is there a link between dairy and cancer?

“I do have a further question, where are the studies linking cancer to dairy coming from? I know the WHO launched a study of a variety of foods and possible linkages to cancer, but I can’t seem to find any results posted anywhere.” asks Enlightened Eater Facebook fan Jennifer Hayes.

Jennifer, I did mention dairy-cancer links in my last post but didn’t provide a lot of detail due to space. But the topic is certainly worth exploring.

Firstly, let me tell you about the World Health Organization (WHO) studies you asked about.  This group has partnered with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)  to set up a long-term multicentre study in Europe called the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC).  Detailed information on diet, lifestyle characteristics, bodyweight and medical histories are being looked at  in 521,000 study participants enrolled from 23 centres in 10 western European countries.

A pretty massive undertaking.

The results of various studies of certain groups within the entire study  have been published over the years as the scientists look at a variety of factors.

In one study, scientists  investigated the associations between intakes of total milk and  various kinds of milk – whole, part-skim and  skim-, yoghurt, cheese, and dietary calcium with colorectal cancer risk  in a group of  477,122 men and women.   Over the 11-year follow up, a higher  amount of calcium from dairy products was linked to a reduced risk of colon cancer. No association, though, was found between non-dairy sources of calcium and colon cancer risk.

In another EPIC study of more than 45,000 Italian subjects, yogurt and other fermented dairy products scored high as a protective food against colon cancer.

As the researchers analyze their findings, there will more to come in the EPIC dairy products –cancer investigations.

When you look at cancer-diet link, you can’t leave out the comprehensive reports by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research. In their second expert report,  Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. This report pointed to lower-fat dairy products as possibly offering  protection against colon cancer.

There have been questions about dairy products and prostate cancer, though. Both calcium and milk have been linked to higher rates of this cancer. But there might be another player here. Some studies point to higher calcium and low blood levels of vitamin D as potential culprits together. Boosting vitamin D counts may have a positive effect but more research is needed.

As for the ovarian cancer- dairy link, while one study did show a small connection, the most recent evidence, a  review of  19 different studies, found a link between a slight increased risk with the intake of whole milk products but not with low-fat and skim milk.

So all in all, it seems that when you look at the various ills that impact our society, eating dairy products certainly offers a host of protective effects. Put that together with the culinary pleasures they offer, dairy products definitely have a lot to offer.


What’s your take on dairy? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Research Roundup, Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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