Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Children's Health

Font Size

New Clue to Milk and Diabetes Link?

Study Shows Protein in Cow's Milk Infant Formula May Raise Risk of Later Diabetes
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 1, 2008 -- The reaction of an infant's immature immune system to a protein found in cow's milk infant formula may explain the suspected link between early consumption of cow's milk and an increased risk of developing type 1 diabetes later, according to a new study.

But experts who reviewed the study for WebMD say the research is mixed on the suspected link and the new report does not offer conclusive proof of cause and effect. While these experts strongly support breastfeeding, they say those mothers who can't or choose not to breastfeed shouldn't be alarmed by the report.

The Formula-Diabetes Theory

The protein under study, called beta-lactoglobulin, is found in cow's milk but not human breast milk. It is similar in structure to the human protein glycodelin, writes Marcia F. Goldfarb, author of the new report.

The report is published in the letters section of the Journal of Proteome Research. Goldfarb directs Anatek-EP, a contract protein research laboratory in Portland, Maine.

An infant's immature immune system may destroy the glycodelin in an effort to destroy the look-alike "foreign" protein beta-lactoglobulin, Goldfarb says.

Glycodelin controls the production of the body's T-cells, which help protect against infection. If glycodelin is destroyed, there could be an overproduction of T cells, she says.

Type 1 diabetes is thought to be caused when T-cells destroy the insulin-secreting beta cells in the pancreas, Goldfarb writes.

The Cow's Milk-Diabetes Link Study

In the report, Goldfarb notes the conflicting results of studies looking at early introduction of formula (before four months) and diabetes.

She reports her results, evaluating blood samples taken from five adults without diabetes and five children and teens who all had type 1 diabetes.

In the adults, she found two had antibodies to beta-lactoglobulin.

In the children, all five had antibodies to beta-lactoglobulin.

While other researchers have noted that beta-lactoglobulin may generate antibodies to glycodelin, Goldfarb proposes the next step: that the immature immune system sees the beta-lactoglobulin as foreign, produces the antibody which cross-reacts with the glycodelin, and triggers the diabetes.

A Food Scientist's Opinion: Cow's Milk and Diabetes

A pediatrician and food scientist who reviewed the report took some issue with the findings and caution what is found is an association, not cause and effect.

"She is making some jumps in her logic," says Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine, Orono.

"She hasn't proven that the beta-lactoglobulin generates antibodies to the glycodelin -- and that's what causes the type 1 diabetes," Camire says. While the theory is plausible, "she hasn't provided the experimental research to document it," Camire says. "A lot of people receive infant formula and do not develop diabetes."

A Pediatrician's Opinion: Cow's Milk and Diabetes

The research showing an association between cow's milk and diabetes has been very mixed, adds Jennifer Shu, MD, an Atlanta pediatrician and co-author of the book Food Fights, an American Academy of Pediatrics' guide.

''It is interesting to know and may be useful," she says of the new report. "However, there have been many studies, as even they mention, that refute their findings."

If anything, she says, the research provides "another strong message to support breastfeeding."

But while breastfeeding is strongly recommended, "for people who can't or choose not to breastfeed, the only safe alternative is infant formula," Shu says.

In a policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding, noting among other possible benefits a reduction in the incidence of diabetes.

Mary Martin Nordness, RD, an ambassador for the National Dairy Council, says the council supports the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation to breastfeed.

"If moms can breastfeed as long as they can, that is the very best," she says, with introduction of cow's milk after age 1.

Today on WebMD

child with red rash on cheeks
What’s that rash?
plate of fruit and veggies
How healthy is your child’s diet?
 
smiling baby
Treating diarrhea, fever and more.
Middle school band practice
Understanding your child’s changing body.
 

worried kid
fitArticle
boy on father's shoulder
Article
 
Child with red rash on cheeks
Slideshow
girl thinking
Article
 

babyapp
New
Child with adhd
Slideshow
 
rl with friends
fitSlideshow
Syringes and graph illustration
Tool
 
6-Week Challenges
Want to know more?
Chill Out and Charge Up Challenge – How to help your tribe de-stress and energize.
Spark Change Challenge - Ready for a healthy change? Get some major motivation.
I have read and agreed to WebMD's Privacy Policy.
Enter cell phone number
- -
Entering your cell phone number and pressing submit indicates you agree to receive text messages from WebMD related to this challenge. WebMD is utilizing a 3rd party vendor, CellTrust, to provide the messages. You can opt out at any time.
Standard text rates apply