“Giving your children milk every day can massively reduce their risk of suffering bowel cancer in later life,” reported the Daily Express. It said that “youngsters who drink a daily half-pint for more than six years are 40% less likely to get the disease when adults”.
This case-control study from New Zealand compared 562 adults with bowel cancer, and 571 age-matched controls without cancer, and looked at whether they had drunk free milk at school. Seventy-eight percent of cases drank school milk compared with 82% of controls, and the researchers calculated a 30% reduced risk of cancer with school milk consumption.
There are a number of limitations to the study that make it difficult to conclude that free school milk reduces the risk of bowel cancer. For example, the analyses were only adjusted for known bowel cancer risk factors of age, sex, ethnicity and family history. However, other dietary factors, obesity, smoking and alcohol are also widely researched lifestyle risk factors. Drinking the freely available milk could potentially be reflecting a tendency to healthier lifestyle behaviours in general, which could reduce cancer risk. Also, these adults were asked about how much milk they drank as children and may not have accurately remembered their actual consumption. It’s worth noting that the researchers acknowledge that a UK study found the opposite relationship between childhood milk drinking and bowel cancer risk. The possible association between milk/dairy consumption in childhood, needs further study.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from University of Otago Medical School, New Zealand. Funding was provided by Genesis Oncology Trust, the Dean’s Bequest Funds of the Dunedin School of Medicine, the Gisborne East Coast Cancer Research Trust and the Director’s Cancer Research Trust.
The research was published in the (peer-reviewed) American Journal of Epidemiology.
In general, the newspapers have not considered the many issues and limitations that must be taken into account when interpreting these findings. They do highlight that there is continuing controversy over the future of school milk in the UK.
What kind of research was this?
This was a case-control study in New Zealand that compared a group of adults with bowel cancer, and a group without bowel cancer, and looked at whether they had drunk milk at school. School milk was freely available in most schools in New Zealand until 1967 when the government programme was stopped. Many schools in the Southland region stopped free milk as long ago as 1950.
Case-control studies are appropriate for looking at whether people with and without a disease have had a particular exposure (milk in this case). The difficulty is in accounting for all potential confounding factors, particularly other health and lifestyle factors, which could be related to both diet and bowel cancer risk, eg regular childhood milk consumption could be a reflection of a ‘healthy’ diet and other healthy lifestyle behaviours that may reduce risk of cancer. In addition, when examining such a specific dietary factor – ie milk consumed in school – it is difficult to account for all possible milk or other dairy products consumed outside of school.
What did the research involve?
In this case-control study, 562 adults (aged 30 to 69) with newly diagnosed bowel cancer were identified from the New Zealand Cancer Registry in 2007. For a control group, 571 age-matched adults without cancer were randomly selected from the electoral register. All participants were mailed a questionnaire that asked about any previous illness, use of aspirin or dietary supplements in childhood, participation in school milk programmes, other childhood milk consumption, childhood diet (including other milk and dairy), smoking, alcohol consumption prior to 25 years of age, screening tests for bowel cancer, family history of cancer, education and sociodemographic characteristics. Childhood weight and height were not questioned. For school milk consumption they were specifically asked:
- Whether they drank school milk
- How many half-pint bottles they drank a week
- What age they first drank school milk
- When they stopped drinking school milk
Statistical risk associations between school milk participation and cancer were calculated. The calculations took into account several risk factors for bowel cancer risk including age, sex, ethnicity, and family history.
What were the basic results?
Data on school milk consumption was available for 552 cases and 569 controls. As expected, people who started school before 1967 were more likely to have had free school milk than those who began school after 1968. Seventy-eight percent of cases participated in the school milk programme compared with 82% of controls. School milk consumption was associated with a 30% reduced risk of developing bowel cancer (odds ratio 0.70, 95% confidence interval 0.51 to 0.96).
When looking at the effect of number of bottles consumed per week they found that compared with no bottles, five bottles per week was associated with 32% significantly decreased risk, and 10 or more bottles with 61% significantly decreased risk. However, there was no significant association with one to four bottles or six to nine bottles. The researchers found a similar trend when the total school consumption of milk was compared with no consumption: 1,200-1,599 bottles was associated with 38% significantly decreased risk; 1,600-1,799 with 43% decreased risk; and 1,800 or more bottles associated with 38% significantly decreased risk. There was no significant association with fewer than 1,200 bottles. The researchers calculated that for every 100 half-pint bottles consumed at school there was a 2.1% reduction in the risk of bowel cancer.
Outside of school, there was a significantly reduced risk of bowel cancer with more than 20 dairy products a week compared with none to nine dairy products a week.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers conclude that their national case-control study ‘provides evidence that school milk consumption was associated with a reduction in the risk of adult colorectal cancer in New Zealand. Furthermore, a dose-dependent relation was evident’.
This study has strengths in its relatively large size, its reliable and nationally representative identification of cases and controls, and its thorough data collection. However, the conclusion that school milk consumption is associated with a reduced risk of bowel cancer in adulthood must be interpreted in light of a number of considerations:
- The analysis took into account established risk factors for bowel cancer including age, sex, ethnicity and family history. However, many other potential confounders were not considered, including diet, physical activity, overweight and obesity, smoking or alcohol consumption. Diet in particular has been implicated in bowel cancer risk, with diets high in saturated fat, red meat and processed foods and low in fibre, fruit and vegetables thought to increase risk. Potentially, any of these lifestyle behaviours could be confounding the relationship between school milk consumption and bowel cancer and regular childhood milk consumption could be a reflection of a ‘healthy’ diet and reflect other healthy lifestyle behaviours that reduce risk of cancer.
- When looking at the effect of number of bottles consumed a week, the researchers found that, compared with no bottles, five bottles were associated with 32% significantly decreased risk and 10 or more bottles with 61% significantly decreased risk. However, there was no significant association with one to four bottles or six to nine bottles. Therefore, the trend here is not very clear. Particularly as only 16 cases and 31 controls drank 10 or more bottles a week, statistical comparison between such small numbers should be viewed with caution.
- With many food questionnaires there is the potential for recall bias. For example, adults may have difficulty remembering how many bottles of school milk they drank many years before. When estimating their average weekly amount, it is highly possible that this could be inaccurate or that their consumption varied slightly from week to week and year to year. Particularly when researchers were using this response and combining it with the number of weeks in the school year and their total years at school to give a total number of bottles consumed at school (figures in 100s or 1000s), there is the possibility of being incorrectly categorised. Hence, there may be less reliability when calculating risk according to the category of total milk bottles consumed.
- Cancer prevalence, and particularly environmental and lifestyle risk factors for cancer, can vary between countries. These findings in New Zealand may not be represented elsewhere. Of note, the researchers acknowledge that a cohort study in the UK found the opposite: increased childhood dairy consumption was associated with increased risk of bowel cancer.
- Case-control studies are most appropriate for looking at rare diseases, where you would expect there to be only a small number of cases developing among a large number of people. In the case of bowel cancer, which is common, the slightly more reliable cohort design could have also been used, where children who drank milk at school and those who didn’t were followed over time to see if they developed cancer. However, such a cohort would consequently need extensive long-term follow-up.
The possible association between milk/dairy consumption, or calcium intake, in childhood, or in later years, is worthy of further study. However, from this study alone, it cannot be concluded that school milk prevents bowel cancer later in life.