The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is calling on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require that cheese manufacturers place a label on their products warning that: “Dairy cheese contains reproductive hormones that may increase breast cancer mortality risk.”
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The non-profit committee, which has more than 12,000 physician members, submitted its petition on October 3rd, as Breast Cancer Awareness month began.
If the FDA agrees to the request, manufacturers would have to ensure that all dairy cheese products display the warning label.
Dairy products previously linked to breast cancer risk
The consumption of dairy products has previously been linked to breast cancer risk and mortality. The estrogen present in cow’s milk becomes more concentrated as milk is converted into cheese. While the resulting dairy products still only contain trace amounts of estrogen, the hormone appears to be biologically active in humans, which studies have shown can increase the risk for breast cancer mortality.
Product labeling during Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Many companies show their support for cancer awareness by advertising the donations they have made to cancer causes or placing pink ribbons on products, particularly during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
However, the pink ribbon labeling is one of the reasons the Physicians Committee is submitting this petition: “Instead of cheese manufacturers like Kraft slapping a pink ribbon on products like Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Macaroni & Cheese, as they have done during previous Breast Cancer Awareness Months, they should be adding warning labels,” says Neal Barnard, committee president and author of the book, The Cheese Trap and Your Body in Balance.
Previous studies have assessed the association
The petition cites several studies that have previously demonstrated a link between consuming dairy products and breast cancer.
Research published in 2013 assessed data available for 1,893 women from The Life After Cancer Epidemiology study who had been diagnosed with early-stage invasive breast cancer between 1997 and 2000.
The analysis found that women who ate one or more servings per day of high-fat dairy products such as cheese, whole milk or ice cream had a 49% higher breast cancer mortality rate, compared with women who ate less than half a serving per day.
More recently, a 2017 study funded by the National Cancer Institute demonstrated a similar association. On comparing the diets of women who had breast cancer with the diets of women without breast cancer, the researchers found that those who ate the most American, cheddar and cream cheese were at a 53% greater risk for breast cancer.
The authors say it is components such as insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) and other growth hormones in the dairy products that contribute to the increased risk.
Breast cancer a leading cause of death among women
According to the Centers for Disease Control, breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death among women. According to 2016 estimates, which is the latest year for which incidence data are available, there were 245,299 new cases of female breast cancer and 41,487 deaths in the United States.
To ensure that Americans understand the potential significant risks, and resulting long-term costs, of consuming dairy cheese products, the FDA should ensure that the notice above is prominently placed on product packaging and labeling for all dairy cheese products.
The committee’s petition
Some organizations may be sceptical
The charity Breast Cancer Now has previously warned against recommendations that have been made about restrictive diets, following concerns that they are not based on good-quality research and “could cause more harm than good.”
The organization has previously dispelled the “myth” that dairy product consumption increases the risk for breast cancer recurrence.
In an online article published in November 2017, the claim that dairy products, including milk, cream and cheese increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence, was the first “myth” to be challenged by the charity.
“There is currently no scientific evidence that dairy products increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence. However, maintaining a healthy weight after treatment can reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back,” it said.
The authors emphasized that dairy products are an important source of protein, calcium and certain vitamins, but that some are high in fat, which can contribute to weight gain.
According to the non-profit organization Breastcancer.org, women with a body mass index (BMI) of more than 25 are at an increased risk for breast cancer, compared with women who maintain a healthier weight, particularly following the menopause.
“Being overweight also can increase the risk of the breast cancer coming back (recurrence) in women who have had the disease.” The organization says the increased risk is due to the fact that fat cells produce estrogen, which can stimulate the development and growth of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers.
Breast Cancer Now recommends choosing lower-fat alternatives such as reduced-fat cheeses and semi-skimmed milk and only eating small amounts of high-fat foods.