Autism Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

PETA: Even more impossible to parody than ever!

Yesterday’s post was a result of the feeling that I had been getting too snarky for too long a time without doing some serious science or medical blogging. Not that there’s anything wrong with being snarky, but a continuous diet of snark eventually gets dull–and not just to readers. However, science blogging is hard. Posts like that take a lot of work (which is why I have a propensity to write such posts over the weekend and post them on Monday). After I do a serious, thoughtful post like that, sometimes I just need a diversion. Sometimes I need to examine something that allows me to deliver a bit of the ol’ not-so-Respectful Insolence to a highly deserving target. It’s very cathartic, not to mention entertaining.

Thank heaven for PETA. The merry band of animal rights nutcases in that organization never fail to disappoint. Last week, it was their writing an open letter to Ben & Jerry suggesting that they replace the cow’s milk with breast milk in the making of their famous ice creams. Truly, you can’t make stuff like this up. I wondered what PETA might do to top that. Unfortunately, I didn’t have long to wait. Witness the latest PETA ad campaign in the form of a billboard in Newark, NJ:


And here, predictably enough, is the accompanying press release:

Recent Studies Find Link Between Cow’s Milk and the Debilitating Disease

For Immediate Release:
September 29, 2008

Lindsay Rajt 757-622-7382

Newark, N.J. — In light of two scientific studies that link milk consumption to autism in children and a third that establishes that the Newark metropolitan area has the highest rate of autism among 14 regions studied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PETA has just unveiled in the city a brand-new billboard parodying a ubiquitous milk ad. The billboard–which shows a bowl of milk and cereal next to the tagline “Got Autism? Studies Have Shown a Link Between Cow’s Milk and Autism”–is located one block from the Prudential Center, near the main entrance.

The bad news is that data from a study by the CDC show that metropolitan Newark’s rate of 10.6 cases of autism per 1,000 8-year-old children is the highest among the 14 areas studied. The good news is that a study conducted in Norway found a major reduction in autistic behavior in children who were put on a diet free of casein–a component of cow’s milk. Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Rome found a “marked improvement” in the behavior of autistic children who were taken off dairy products. Both studies present compelling evidence that should give parents pause the next time they’re inclined to say to their kids, “Drink your milk.”

Testimonials from parents of autistic kids support the studies’ findings. One mother posted the following on the Internet: “There was nothing to lose, so I decided to eliminate all the dairy products from his diet. What happened next was nothing short of miraculous. Miles stopped screaming, he didn’t spend as much time repeating actions, and, for the first time in months, he let his sister hold his hands to sing ‘Ring Around a Rosy.'”

“We already know about the link between dairy products and ear infections, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and obesity, and now you can add autism to the list,” says PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. “Cow’s milk might be the perfect food for baby cows, but it might be making kids sick and could seriously damage their health when they get older.”

For more information and to view a copy of the billboard, please visit PETA’s Web site or click here.

The stupid, it burns hypernova, leaving behind a black hole of vileness. In other words, it’s typical of the burning stupid that PETA specializes in.

First off, PETA has a rather different definition of “recent” than I do. Take a look at the University of Rome study to which the PETA blog post links. Not only is it small and not that impressive, but it’s from 1995. I hadn’t realized that thirteen years ago was “recent.” Here’s a hint: In the world of my specialty, breast cancer, the last thirteen years have produced a sea change in many aspects of how we view and treat breast cancer. I wasn’t sure what study from Norway to which PETA referred in its press release. My best guess was that it was this one by Knivsberg et al from 2002, which is hardly new either. It’s also small (only ten subjects in each group) and single-blinded. Not exactly compelling evidence.

The real reason why this PETA ad is even more disingenuous and deceptive than the usual PETA ad is that the concept that milk proteins exacerbate autistic symptoms is a hypothesis that has largely been discredited. The proposed mechanism was known as the “opioid hypothesis,” because the milk protein casein is known to break down to casomorphins, peptides that have opioid effects and release histamine, and (or so it was thought) these breakdown products of casein exacerbate the symptoms of autism. This was the hypothesis that launched a million quacks advocating milk-free or casein-free diets. It’s also the idea that launched the idea that gluten-free diets might alleviate autistic symptoms, based on the observation that casein has a similar structure to gluten. Indeed, gluten-free, casein-free diets are a major theme in so-called “biomedical treatments” for autism beloved of Jenny McCarthy, among others. Like the basis for so many other dubious “biomedical” treatments for autism, the idea that casein somehow contributes to autism is an idea that is simple and plausible-sounding.

And almost certainly wrong.

Indeed, there was a Cochane review of the scientific literature in 2004 that examined all the studies to date examining the hypothesis the casein-free diets can alleviate autistic symptoms and was updated in 2008. (Now there’s what I mean when I call a study “recent.” Eat that, PETA!) Here’s what the review concluded:

In the first version of this review we argued that exclusion diets are not without cost in terms of inconvenience and extra financial cost and limitations on foods of choice for the affected family member and that we could not recommend their use as a standard treatment on the basis of the limited data available. The only trial identified since the first review shows no significant difference between the intervention and control group and, again, we cannot recommend these exclusion diets as standard treatment.

That trial was this one, a randomized, double-blind trial of a gluten-free, casein-free diet in autism, and the authors concluded:

This study tested the efficacy of a gluten-free and casein-free (GFCF) diet in treating autism using a randomized, double blind repeated measures crossover design. The sample included 15 children aged 2-16 years with autism spectrum disorder. Data on autistic symptoms and urinary peptide levels were collected in the subjects’ homes over the 12 weeks that they were on the diet. Group data indicated no statistically significant findings even though several parents reported improvement in their children. Although preliminary, this study demonstrates how a controlled clinical trial of the GFCF diet can be conducted, and suggests directions for future research.

Moreover, casein-free diets are not without potential risk. Indeed, just a few months ago, there was a study that suggested that such diets may well contribute to bone loss in developing bones. Funny that PETA forgot to mention that particular study, which actually was recently published recently–as in earlier this year.

That PETA would so clearly and dishonestly misrepresent the status of the scientific data regarding the use of casein-free diets to treat autism is not at all surprising, given its past willingness to twist, dissemble, and lie in the name of publicity for its cause. Worse, it’s not through yet, even here, claiming that milk “has already been strongly linked to Crohn’s disease, certain types of cancer, and other serious health problems,” referring to this post on its own propaganda site In this case, the claim is that a bacteria that can cause intestinal inflammation in cattle, M. paratuberculosis, is responsible for Crohn’s disease in humans, and the article has lovely citations to great scientific journals such as WorldNetDaily. In any case, the “evidence” for causality here is virtually all circumstantial and not particularly strong. It’s true that M. paratuberculosis has in some studies been associated with inflammatory bowel disease (although in others it wasn’t). Overall, the evidence is inconclusive at best, as described in this recent review article, and the question is under active study. It’s another case of confusing correlation with causation every bit as blatant as the sorts of canards that the antivaccine movement likes to lay down, complete with “testimonials.”

In fact, this exercise is nothing more than an exercise in confusing correlation with causation, but even dumber (if that’s possible) than antivaccinationists. The reason is that people have been drinking cow’s milk for literally millennia, ever since humans domesticated cows and other ruminants. True, it’s only been since the late 1800s that its consumption has become widespread, accelerating in the early 1900s with the advent of refrigeration, but, even so, that would not explain why autism rates didn’t take off until nearly many decades later in the 1990s. I mean, if you’re going to intentionally confuse correlation with causation, can’t you pick either a different factor whose exposure has been increasing at a time closer to the beginning of the apparent rise in autism cases. CDs or personal computers, anyone?

I know, I know. Beating up on PETA is like beating up on a helpless puppy dog, except that puppy dogs are cute and lovable, and PETA is anything but either of the two. It’s also too damned easy, leaving me feeling vaguely guilty when I’m done for not going after a more challenging target. I do it anyway because the level of sheer irrationality demonstrated by PETA with each and every one of its campaigns just irritates the hell out of me. I hate having my intelligence insulted in such a manner. Also, the sheer publicity whoring for which PETA is so well known irritates me. It’s painfully obvious that PETA doesn’t give a rodent’s posterior about helping autistic children. It just knows that autism has been in the news a lot lately and decided a good way to get publicity would be to latch onto autism somehow, no matter how tenuous the link they come up with to justify their billboard. Not that it will matter to most PETA supporters or to the “biomedical:” (translation: antivaccinationist) movement. Indeed, this latest campaign is so idiotic that I almost expect to see it touted on autism quackery websites soon.

There, now. I feel better. Slapping down PETA is always a fine diversion when my workload gets too heavy and I need a break. Hopefully, I can pick a more challenging target next time. On the other hand, so much woo is no better than this; so I’m not sure there really is a much more challenging target in that realm.

Additional commentary:

  1. PO’d at PETA
  2. Got Autism? (asks PETA)

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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