Cows' milk fat components as potential anticarcinogenic agents

J Nutr. 1997 Jun;127(6):1055-60. doi: 10.1093/jn/127.6.1055.


The optimum approach to conquering cancer is prevention. Although the human diet contains components which promote cancer, it also contains components with the potential to prevent it. Recent research shows that milk fat contains a number of potential anticarcinogenic components including conjugated linoleic acid, sphingomyelin, butyric acid and ether lipids. Conjugated linoleic acid inhibited proliferation of human malignant melanoma, colorectal, breast and lung cancer cell lines. In animals, it reduced the incidence of chemically induced mouse epidermal tumors, mouse forestomach neoplasia and aberrant crypt foci in the rat colon. In a number of studies, conjugated linoleic acid, at near-physiological concentrations, inhibited mammary tumorigenesis independently of the amount and type of fat in the diet. In vitro studies showed that the milk phospholipid, sphingomyelin, through its biologically active metabolites ceramide and sphingosine, participates in three major antiproliferative pathways influencing oncogenesis, namely, inhibition of cell growth, and induction of differentiation and apoptosis. Mice fed sphingomyelin had fewer colon tumors and aberrant crypt foci than control animals. About one third of all milk triacylglycerols contain one molecule of butyric acid, a potent inhibitor of proliferation and inducer of differentiation and apoptosis in a wide range of neoplastic cell lines. Although butyrate produced by colonic fermentation is considered important for colon cancer protection, an animal study suggests dietary butyrate may inhibit mammary tumorigenesis. The dairy cow also has the ability to extract other potential anticarcinogenic agents such as beta-carotene, beta-ionone and gossypol from its feed and transfer them to milk. Animal studies comparing the tumorigenic potential of milk fat or butter with linoleic acid-rich vegetable oils or margarines are reviewed. They clearly show less tumor development with dairy products.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / isolation & purification*
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Butyrates / isolation & purification
  • Butyrates / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Linoleic Acids / isolation & purification
  • Linoleic Acids / therapeutic use*
  • Lipids / isolation & purification
  • Lipids / therapeutic use*
  • Milk / chemistry*
  • Sphingomyelins / isolation & purification
  • Sphingomyelins / therapeutic use*


  • Anticarcinogenic Agents
  • Butyrates
  • Linoleic Acids
  • Lipids
  • Sphingomyelins