Cows' Milk, Diabetes Connection Bolstered

By N. Seppa

Many studies have linked cows' milk consumed by babies to subsequent diabetes, but some researchers still doubt that it causes the disease. The association is based on animal experiments, they note, or indirect evidence such as studies in which parents of diabetic children try to recollect when their babies first started drinking milk-based formula. Now, Finnish researchers have avoided the vagaries of poor recall by studying children from birth. In so doing, they have added to the case against cows' milk.

By monitoring babies in diabetes-prone families, the scientists find that infants getting formula that includes cows' milk are more likely later to develop the immune reactions associated with juvenile-onset, or type I, diabetes than are babies getting a substitute. The researchers tracked, until age 8 months, 173 newborns in Finland who had a close relative with type I diabetes. To augment their mothers' milk, half of these babies received milk-based formula and the rest got a formula in which the cows' milk proteins had been broken into fragments called peptides. The two formulas taste and smell the same, so parents and researchers didn't know which one a baby was drinking.

Babies' immune systems largely ignore cows' milk proteins that have been chopped up. However, contact with one intact protein in cows' milk, bovine insulin, may set off a destructive process. The immune system would attack pancreas islet cells that make human insulin, which resembles bovine insulin, and would produce antibodies. At 2 years of age, 10 of 89 children getting cows' milk formula had formed antibodies associated with type I diabetes. However, only 3 of 84 babies receiving the treated milk showed these antibodies.

These autoimmune antibodies, or autoantibodies, are made by immune B cells and appear to dispose of damaged pancreatic islet cells.  The antibodies indicate that bovine insulin might be spurring an immune system T-cell reaction against the child's own islet cells, he says. Insulin regulates sugar metabolism in the body. Research had already determined that having one type of autoantibody to insulin indicates that a baby has roughly a 4 in 10 chance of contracting type I diabetes within the next decade. Having more types of these autoantibodies is a sign of greater risk; having three imparts an 80 to 90 percent likelihood of getting type I diabetes. In this study, 3 of the 10 children in the cows' milk group who had diabetes-related autoantibodies showed one type of such antibody, and the rest had two or more.

The precise cause of diabetes remains unclear but the evidence against cows' milk is piling up. As an example, in Puerto Rico, fewer than 5 percent of mothers breast-feed their children. Instead, nearly all use formula made from cows' milk. Meanwhile, type I diabetes incidence in Puerto Rico is roughly 10 times the rate seen in Cuba, where breast-feeding is nearly universal. Such findings suggest that the problem may be cows' milk ingested in the first few months of life.

Dr. Mercola's Comment:

It seems that the evidence is fairly overwhelming and compelling to link milk ingestion early in life to insulin dependent diabetes. This is a horrible disease as I am unaware of any natural therapy that one can use to treat it.

One is forced to rely on imprecise regulation of self-administered insulin or face a certain death in a matter of days by going into a hyperglycemic coma. It is interesting to note that predigested milk products do not seem to stimulate this reaction.

On a practical basis, that means that formulas like Good Start from Carnation would likely not cause a problem. Most of the milk protein in these products is hydrolyzed and broken down into smaller fragments that would not be as likely to stimulate antibodies to the pancreas.


Akerblom, H.K., S.M. Virtanen . . . O. Vaarala, et al. 1999. Emergence of diabetes associated autoantibodies in the nutritional prevention of IDDM (RIGR) project. 59th Annual Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association. June. San Diego.

Further Readings:

Cow's milk: New link to diabetes? Science News 150(Oct. 19):249. 1996.

Cow's milk for infants: No longer regarded as "nature's most perfect food." Health Facts 20(January):3. 1995

Harrison, L.C. 1996. Cow's milk and IDDM. Lancet 348(Oct. 5):905.

Sternberg, S. 1996. Cow's milk not linked to early diabetes. Science News 150(Sept. 7):151.


Hans K. Akerblom University of Helsinki Department of Medicine Hallituskatu 8 00100 Helsinki Finland

Hans-Michael Dosch Hospital for Sick Children Division of Immunology and Cancer Research 555 University Avenue Toronto, Ontario M5G 1X8 Canada

Outi Vaarala University of Helsinki Department of Medicine Hallituskatu 8 00100 Helsinki Finland

Suvi M. Virtanen University of Tampere School of Public Health P.O. Box 607 (Medisiinarinkatu 3) FIN-33101 Tampere Finland

Science News, Vol. 155, No. 26, June 26, 1999, p. 404.

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