For more than a handful of food industry executives, T. Colin Campbell, nutritional sciences, is public enemy number one.
“It’s really between me and the dairy industry,” he said.
Campbell is the son of a dairy farmer and the first in his family to attend college. He grew up glugging milk like any good Virginian farm boy. Why, then, is he a self-described heretic in the nutrition community?
Campbell is a professor emeritus in nutritional sciences, but he is known worldwide for his best-selling book The China Study. Co-authored by Campbell’s son Thomas ’99, The China Study places Campbell’s most famous project within the context of his research at large.
Since its publication in 2004, the book has drawn thunderous praise for its ambition — the China Project to which the title refers is to date the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted. But the book provokes at least as much outrage as intrigue.
In The China Study, Campbell implicates protein in the promotion of cancer, cardiovascular disease and a host of bone, kidney and brain afflictions. The Western diet’s reliance on meat and animal products, he said, is contributing more than any other factor to our high rates of heart disease, cancer and a number of other “diseases of affluence” suffered disproportionately by Americans.
Modern medicine has come up with a variety of high-tech solutions to these problems. In a procedure known as coronary angioplasty, a small balloon is inflated inside a diseased artery, squishing the plaque back against the walls of the artery and clearing a passageway for blood flow. But many now contend that diet may be the best treatment.
“Doctors get little or no nutrition education,” Campbell said. “Quite frankly they’re just as inclined as anybody else to speak on the subject.”
The China Project itself examined diet, lifestyle and disease in 65 primarily rural counties of 24 different Chinese provinces, representing a wide range of cancer mortality rates, population densities and geographic regions. By collecting blood, urine and food samples in addition to survey data, the team was able to study over 350 variables, including 109 nutritional, viral and hormonal blood indicators.
Best of all, Campbell said, was that the sample represented a “reasonably pristine population – 94 percent of the subjects were born in the county where they were surveyed.” The resulting “reservoir” of data, he said, will likely be analyzed for decades by scientists at Cornell, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine.
The average Rural Chinese consumes about a tenth of the animal protein and less than half the fat by calorie intake as the average American. Rural Chinese also die of heart disease at a fraction of the rate seen in the United States.
While critics question The China Project’s ability to make such correlations amongst such an enormous cloud of data, Campbell points out that for 27 years, scientists conducted nutrition and cancer research in the laboratory side by side with the China Project to explain the real world data.
Campbell’s early research in the Philippines was a formative period in his career. “In this project,” he wrote in The China Study, “I uncovered a dark secret.” After helping discover the powerful carcinogen dioxin, Campbell began to investigate the unusually high prevalence of liver cancer in Filipino children.
While the common belief was that the consumption of aflatoxin — a mold toxin found in peanuts and corn — initiated liver cancer, Campbell could not ignore the fact that the children from the wealthiest families were the ones most likely to get liver cancer. These children, Campbell observed, ate the highest-protein diets.
To explain this correlation, Campbell compared the development of cancer to seeding a lawn. The carcinogen, he said, “implants the grass seed in the soil in the first place … but just like seeds in the soil, the initial cancer cells will not grow and multiply unless the right conditions are met.” Certain factors promote the growth of cancerous cells that would otherwise remain dormant — protein in particular can act “like fertilizer on the lawn.”
“Cow’s milk protein, of all things, is probably the most potent promoter ever discovered,” Campbell said. A series of experimental animal studies conducted by Campbell revealed that the protein casein gave milk its cancer-promoting quality. “It was heretical to say that protein wasn’t healthy, let alone say it promoted cancer,” Campbell wrote.
“We need protein. There’s no question about that,” he said. But the 35 percent protein diet recommended by the Food and Nutrition Board in 2002 is “totally insane,” according to Campbell. “As a species, we’re living in the range where you can expect to see problems from protein.”
The amount of protein consumed by subjects in a number of experiments, Campbell said, proved more significant for the accumulation of bad cholesterol than saturated fat.
The China Project has massive implications for human health and nutrition, but at its heart it is really about the scientific method, Campbell said. “Western medicine is premised on the assumption that if you get an ailment and you want to treat it, then you need to find the chemical mechanism that causes the ailment,” he explained. But unfortunately, he added, “Life is more complicated than that.”