Saturday, July 24, 2010

The China Study one more time: Are raw plant foods giving people cancer?

In this previous post I analyzed some data from the China Study that included counties where there were cases of schistosomiasis infection. Following one of Denise Minger’s suggestions, I removed all those counties from the data. I was left with 29 counties, a much smaller sample size. I then ran a multivariate analysis using WarpPLS (, like in the previous post, but this time I used an algorithm that identifies nonlinear relationships between variables.

Below is the model with the results. (Click on it to enlarge. Use the "CRTL" and "+" keys to zoom in, and CRTL" and "-" to zoom out.) As in the previous post, the arrows explore associations between variables. The variables are shown within ovals. The meaning of each variable is the following: aprotein = animal protein consumption; pprotein = plant protein consumption; cholest = total cholesterol; crcancer = colorectal cancer.

What is total cholesterol doing at the right part of the graph? It is there because I am analyzing the associations between animal protein and plant protein consumption with colorectal cancer, controlling for the possible confounding effect of total cholesterol.

I am not hypothesizing anything regarding total cholesterol, even though this variable is shown as pointing at colorectal cancer. I am just controlling for it. This is the type of thing one can do in multivariate analyzes. This is how you “control for the effect of a variable” in an analysis like this.

Since the sample is fairly small, we end up with insignificant beta coefficients that would normally be statistically significant with a larger sample. But it helps that we are using nonparametric statistics, because they are still robust in the presence of small samples, and deviations from normality. Also the nonlinear algorithm is more sensitive to relationships that do not fit a classic linear pattern. We can summarize the findings as follows:

- As animal protein consumption increases, plant protein consumption decreases significantly (beta=-0.36; P<0.01). This is to be expected and helpful in the analysis, as it differentiates somewhat animal from plant protein consumers. Those folks who got more of their protein from animal foods tended to get significantly less protein from plant foods.

- As animal protein consumption increases, colorectal cancer decreases, but not in a statistically significant way (beta=-0.31; P=0.10). The beta here is certainly high, and the likelihood that the relationship is real is 90 percent, even with such a small sample.

- As plant protein consumption increases, colorectal cancer increases significantly (beta=0.47; P<0.01). The small sample size was not enough to make this association insignificant. The reason is that the distribution pattern of the data here is very indicative of a real association, which is reflected in the low P value.

Remember, these results are not confounded by schistosomiasis infection, because we are only looking at counties where there were no cases of schistosomiasis infection. These results are not confounded by total cholesterol either, because we controlled for that possible confounding effect. Now, control variable or not, you would be correct to point out that the association between total cholesterol and colorectal cancer is high (beta=0.58; P=0.01). So let us take a look at the shape of that association:

Does this graph remind you of the one on this post; the one with several U curves? Yes. And why is that? Maybe it reflects a tendency among the folks who had low cholesterol to have more cancer because the body needs cholesterol to fight disease, and cancer is a disease. And maybe it reflects a tendency among the folks who have high total cholesterol to do so because total cholesterol (and particularly its main component, LDL cholesterol) is in part a marker of disease, and cancer is often a culmination of various metabolic disorders (e.g., the metabolic syndrome) that are nothing but one disease after another.

To believe that total cholesterol causes colorectal cancer is nonsensical because total cholesterol is generally increased by consumption of animal products, of which animal protein consumption is a proxy. (In this reduced dataset, the linear univariate correlation between animal protein consumption and total cholesterol is a significant and positive 0.36.) And animal protein consumption seems to be protective again colorectal cancer in this dataset (negative association on the model graph).

Now comes the part that I find the most ironic about this whole discussion in the blogosphere that has been going on recently about the China Study; and the answer to the question posed in the title of this post: Are raw plant foods giving people cancer? If you think that the answer is “yes”, think again. The variable that is strongly associated with colorectal cancer is plant protein consumption.

Do fruits, veggies, and other plant foods that can be consumed raw have a lot of protein?

With a few exceptions, like nuts, they do not. Most raw plant foods have trace amounts of protein, especially when compared with foods made from refined grains and seeds (e.g., wheat grains, soybean seeds). So the contribution of raw fruits and veggies in general could not have influenced much the variable plant protein consumption. To put this in perspective, the average plant protein consumption per day in this dataset was 63 g; even if they were eating 30 bananas a day, the study participants would not get half that much protein from bananas.

Refined foods made from grains and seeds are made from those plant parts that the plants absolutely do not “want” animals to eat. They are the plants’ “children” or “children’s nutritional reserves”, so to speak. This is why they are packed with nutrients, including protein and carbohydrates, but also often toxic and/or unpalatable to animals (including humans) when eaten raw.

But humans are so smart; they learned how to industrially refine grains and seeds for consumption. The resulting human-engineered products (usually engineered to sell as many units as possible, not to make you healthy) normally taste delicious, so you tend to eat a lot of them. They also tend to raise blood sugar to abnormally high levels, because industrial refining makes their high carbohydrate content easily digestible. Refined foods made from grains and seeds also tend to cause leaky gut problems, and autoimmune disorders like celiac disease. Yep, we humans are really smart.

Thanks again to Dr. Campbell and his colleagues for collecting and compiling the China Study data, and to Ms. Minger for making the data available in easily downloadable format and for doing some superb analyses herself.