Milk Chocolate and Cancer: Just Coincidence?

Cadbury’s famous ‘glass and a half’ milk claim has been dropped from its wrappers of Dairy Milk. The old claim referred to the amount of milk used in a half pound of Dairy Milk. (1)

Cadbury initially said Trading Standards was behind the change but the regulator has denied any involvement. Cadbury has since backtracked over the suggestion.

“The Trading Standards Institute would have no objection to the continued use of the slogan unless it was considered misleading by consumers,” a spokesman for the watchdog said. “The slogan is well known by consumers and should not be confused with food labeling laws.”

Cocoa and chocolate have been acclaimed for their possible medicinal and health benefits, but are consumers aware that the milk going into the chocolate may not be so healthy?

Part of the problem seems to be milk from modern dairy farms, where cows are milked about 300 days a year. For much of that time, the cows are pregnant, and the later in pregnancy a cow is, the more hormones appear in her milk.

The link between cancer and dietary hormones – estrogen in particular - has been a source of great concern among scientists, but it has not been widely studied or discussed, says Ganmaa Davaasambuu, Ph.D. in Environmental Health (Japan), a Fellow (Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study), and a working scientist (Harvard School of Public Health).

Even organic cow’s milk, which does not contain artificial hormones, does contain naturally occurring hormones, says Neal Barnard, MD, President of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.(2)

Today, more than 80 percent of cattle are raised by using artificial hormones that help to increase their growth rate as well as body mass. The US department of agriculture has given permission to use six hormones that can be used for cattle but not poultry.

These hormones are:

  • Zeranol
  • Estradiol
  • Testosterone
  • Progesterone
  • Melengestrol acetate
  • Trenbolone acetate

Among these six hormones, testosterone, estradiol and progesterone are natural hormones and melengestrol acetate, trenbolone acetate and zeronol are synthetic hormones.(3)

Medical researchers at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna have identified a key mechanism which allows synthetic sex hormones to directly affect mammary cells.(4)

The research builds on previous work by Prof Josef Penninger, the IMBA director, who found the first genetic evidence that a protein called RANKL is the master regulator of healthy bones.

The research team shows that a synthetic female sex hormone used in hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and contraceptive pills can trigger RANKL, the master regulator of healthy bones, in breast cells of mice. As a consequence, these mammary cells start to divide and multiply and fail to die when they should. Moreover, stem cells in the breast become able to renew themselves, ultimately resulting in breast cancer.

In another unrelated study, rats fed milk show a higher incidence of cancer and develop a higher number of tumors than those who drank water, said Ganmaa.(5)

Whether these foreign hormones activate similar mechanisms in humans is open to question. What we do know is that they are being passed on from the cow and are accumulating in humans.


A pilot study looked at looked at third-graders in Mongolia who were tested when drinking Mongolian milk, which is milk from non-pregnant cows, and then tested again after being fed U.S. commercial milk.  After a month, the hormone levels jumped among the children fed the U.S. milk.

Incidence of breast cancer in Mongolia is one of the lowest in the world (6.6 per every 100,000) and chocolate consumption is low compared with the US.(6)

World Trade Import Figures of Chocolate/Cocoa preparations, by country, in thousands USD.



#1 France: 1,108,320
# 2 United States: 1,105,880
# 3 Germany: 1,004,470
# 4 Netherlands: 442,978
# 5 Canada: 378,382
# 6 Belgium: 371,085
# 7 Japan: 335,436
# 8 Italy: 305,983
# 9 Spain: 243,029
# 10 Austria: 218,785
# 11 Sweden: 187,716
# 12 Denmark: 169,864
# 13 Mexico: 166,013
# 14 Ireland: 142,692
# 15 Portugal: 127,759
# 16 Greece: 112,109
# 17 Czech Republic: 110,017
# 18 Norway: 108,665
# 19 Saudi Arabia: 105,349
# 20 Switzerland: 93,537
# 21 Australia: 90,668
# 22 Hong Kong: 82,616
# 23 Poland: 77,889
# 24 Finland: 67,389
# 25 Singapore: 66,918
# 29 China: 49,207
# 48 Brazil: 17,401
# 49 Qatar: 16,994
# 50 Turkmenistan: 16,303
# 51 Malta: 15,615
# 52 Romania: 14,916
# 65 Argentina: 9,346
# 66 Colombia: 8,114
# 67 Costa Rica: 7,921
# 68 Iceland: 7,918
# 69 Guatemala: 7,813
# 70 El Salvador: 7,456
# 71 Egypt: 7,428
# 72 Paraguay: 7,366
# 73 Peru: 7,053
# 74 Armenia: 7,052
# 75 Mongolia: 6,947
# 76 Andorra: 6,944
# 77 Kyrgyzstan: 6,536
# 78 India: 6,186

(SOURCE: International Trade Centre UNCTAD/WTO)

There are three main chocolate categories: dark, milk and white, differing in their content of cocoa solid, milk fat and cocoa butter.

Milk chocolate is solid chocolate made with milk in the form of milk powder, liquid milk, or condensed milk (invented by Henri Nestle in the 1800s) added. The U.S. Government requires a 10 percent concentration of chocolate liquor; EU regulations specify a minimum of 25 percent cocoa solids. (7)

Dark chocolate, also called “plain chocolate” or “black chocolate”, is produced by adding fat and sugar to cocoa. It is chocolate with no milk, or with much less milk than milk chocolate.  Dark chocolate may be eaten as it is, or used in cooking. Bars with up to 85 percent, or sometimes 99 percent, cocoa are sold. Chocolate with higher cocoa percentages is more expensive.

White chocolate is a confection based on sugar, milk and fat (either cocoa butter or vegetable oils) without the cocoa solids. Some consider white chocolate not to even be chocolate because of the lack of cocoa solids.

In 2001, Americans consumed 3 billion pounds of chocolate, which totaled $13.1 billion in sales.  71 percent of North American chocolate eaters prefer MILK CHOCOLATE.

Let’s compare US breast cancer incidence rates with the rest of the world.

The rates of breast cancer in women in the US are;

  • almost double those of women in some South American countries
  • more than 3 times higher than they are in China, and
  • more than 4 times higher than in East Africa.(8)

According to statistics from GLOBOCAN 2008, a project of the International Agency for Research on Cancer in France, 76 per every 100,000 women in the US (adjusted for age) were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 compared with 44 per 100,000 in South America.(9)

Although some of the differences between North and South America can be attributed to improvements in screening, diagnosis, and documentation, experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) also point to differences in lifestyle.(10)

“In many other parts of the world, most particularly in East Asia, Africa, and South America, people regard cow’s milk as unfit for consumption by adult human beings,” Frank Oski, MD, Former Director of the Department of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, explained.


However, chocolates are becoming more popular among Chinese consumers, accounting for 24 percent of total value sales in 2007. Milk chocolate is the favorite flavor with Chinese consumers, accounting for 38 percent of value sales of chocolates in 2007, a survey from Euromonitor International said.

Rates of breast cancer in Shanghai have increased by 31 percent in the last 10 years, to a current rate of 55 per 100,000 women. Rates in Beijing have increased by 23 percent over the same period, up to 45 per 100,000.

Chocolate companies have flocked to Singapore in the last couple of years as chocolate consumption in Asia is rising at an average of 25 percent per year.

Singapore has among the highest breast cancer incidence in Asia.


Europeans consume around 40 percent of the world’s cocoa per year – 16 of the top 20 consuming countries are European. (11)

Belgium has one of the world’s highest chocolate consumption rates, at an average of more than 15 pounds per person per year.

Belgium also has the highest rate of breast cancer in Europe, according to the latest research by scientists from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organisation.

About 9,700 women in Belgium are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, or 109 per 100,000, compared to 93.5 10 years ago. Some 2,500 die of the disease every year. The rate of diagnosis is higher than any other country.

Are the hormones in milk chocolate to blame?

Professor Ross Hume Hall asks, at the International Conference on Breast Cancer and the Environment Ontario Canada, November 1995;

“We have strong scientific evidence about toxic chemicals in the environment that mimic female sex hormones and overload a woman’s hormonal system, a known cause of breast cancer. Yet, neither government agencies nor societies responsible for dealing with breast cancer acknowledge this context. WHY?” (12)

Perhaps it’s because the processing and consumption of chocolate products is Western World dominated with 70 percent of the worldwide profit from chocolate sales concentrated in these countries. 80 percent of the world chocolate market is accounted for by just six transnational companies, including Nestle, Mars and Cadbury.

Driven by sales revenues from its popular brands like, Snickers, Milky Way among others Mars, Inc. has been the leading chocolate manufacturer for the two years in terms of sales revenue. The company sales revenue stood at  US$8,514 million.(13)

Cadbury Schweppes plc, the UK headquartered chocolate manufacturer, saw its revenues marginally increase to US$ 4,271.7 million in 2007.

Chocolate and cancer –  just coincidence?  Maybe but I’m sticking to the dark variety from now on.


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