Google Promotes the “Cheese Causes Cancer” Myth

Google News has done it again. The company that used boast that it’s motto was, “Don’t Be Evil,” has posted a link to a questionable article from a questionable source that promotes the idea that cheese causes or worsens  breast cancer.

First, here’s the truth:  Cheese does not cause or worsen cancer, according to a 2015 report in the Journal of Breast Cancer and republished by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), in which a team of researchers concluded that, “Dairy consumption was inversely associated with the risk of developing breast cancer and this effect was dependent on the dose, dairy-type, and time.”

The researchers combined 22 prospective cohort studies  involving 1,566,940 participants, and five case-control studies  with 33,372 participants to come up with these results.

More specifically, high and modest dairy consumption  of 400 to  600 grams of cheese per day significantly reduced the risk of breast cancer compared with low dairy consumption of less than 400 grams per day. The data indicated that yogurt and low fat dairy products actually reduced the risk of breast cancer, while other dairy product did not affect breast cancer rates one way or the other. The controlled case study participants were followed for an average of ten years in those studies.

These are the scientific facts as reported in a highly reputable medical journal and cited by the government agency charged with the responsibility for collecting data on this kind of research.

The article cited in Google News today is linked back to a website called OneGreenPlanet.org ,which published a report that Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has “petitioned” the United States Food and Drug Administration to demand that the FDA mandate to put a warning label on all dairy products.

The warning the Physicians Committee wants to see would read, “Dairy cheese contains reproductive hormones that may increase breast cancer mortality risk.”

The source for this report, OneGreenPlanet.org,  promotes a vegetarian (and more specifically a vegan) lifestyle.  They don’t like anything that comes from cows. (The difference between vegetarian and vegan diets is that vegans, in addition to not eating meat products, also do not eat daily products.)

The article in OneGreenPlanet cites two research papers.

The first paper was a 2013 study published in the Journal of National Cancer Institute (as cited by the NCBI, in which it was reported that, among 1,893 women who had ALREADY been diagnosed with early stage invasive breast cancer between 1997 and 2000, 349 women had a recurrence. Some 372 women died during the average of 11.8 years from the original diagnosis…but only 189 actually died from breast cancer. The methodology of this study involved the use of the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Food Frequency Questionnaire AFTER the cancer diagnosis.  This questionnaire requests that respondents report their usage months and sometimes years after an adverse health event.

Using a study group consisting of women who had already contracted breast cancer to prove that dairy products cause breast cancer because the women in the study who had contracted breast cancer appeared to have consumed a higher than average amount of dairy products. This is a fraudulent assumption because there was no control group consisting of women who ate the same amount of dairy products…but did not come down with breast cancer.

This study is actually valueless when it comes to proving that daily products cause breast cancer

The article in OneGreeenPlanet also cites a second study, also reported in NCBI database, claiming that it confirms the findings that there is a causative link between high dairy diets and breast cancer.

That isn’t exactly what the second study, originally published in Current Developments in Nutrition, actually found Here’s a direct quote from the abstract.

Total dairy intakes were associated with a non-significant 15% reduction in breast cancer risk (P = 0.11). Higher intakes of yogurt were associated with reduced risk of breast cancer (OR: 0.61; 95% CI: 0.46, 0.82) and higher intakes of American, cheddar, and cream cheeses were associated with a marginally significant increased risk

There’s a lot of double-talk here. For example, the term “marginally significant increased risk” actually means the exact opposite of what it appears to mean. This term actually means that there is no significant increased risk, but it is phrased in such a manner as to make it sound as if there were.

The fact – and it is a fact not a supposition at this point – that Google News continually promotes health stories that have no scientific validity raises questions about how much evil Google is actually doing.  The casual reader might click on this story and come away with the impression that the article in OneGreenPlanet. org was a reliable source of information…when that is not the case.

This is the  process through which interest groups manipulate consumers.  It is also the process through which bad information get injected into public conversations.

In today’s New York Times, there is a very interesting article about why these more or less bogus research studies seem to re-appear very few weeks.  In “Five Reasons the Diet Soda Myth Won’t Die” Dr Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatric medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine, explains why the diet soda myth and other dietary myths keep getting repeated in the media.

Dr. Carroll writes that the old “publish or perish” shibboleth is still, unfortunately, alive and well in academia:

As a junior faculty member, or even as a doctoral student or postdoctoral fellow, you need to publish research. Often, the easiest step is to take a large data set and publish an analysis from it showing a correlation between some factor and some outcome.

This kind of research is rampant. That’s how we hear year after year that everyone is dehydrated and we need to drink more water. It’s how we hear that coffee is affecting health in this way or that. It’s how we wind up with a lot of nutritional studies that find associations in one way or another.

As long as the culture of science demands output as the measure of success, these studies will appear. And given that the news media also needs to publish to survive — if you didn’t know, people love to read about food and health — we’ll continue to read stories about how diet soda will kill us.

Just for the record, there is no evidence that artificial sweeteners are any worse for you than sugar is, nor is there any evidence that cheese will give you breast cancer…but those articles sure do collect clicks all over the place.

It is worth noting that ALL of these studies were published in what are presumably reputable journals and they have all be recorded in the NCBI database.

(Full disclosure: The author of this article was raised by a father who was a Breakstone dairy products distributor, so you could say I was raised on cheese.)

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