How might hormones in milk or meat affect your health?
A reader in Fredericksburg, VA asked me talk about hormones in food and their effects on your health.
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Let me start by pointing out hormones are not used in poultry or pork products. So, paying extra for hormone-free eggs or bacon is like paying extra for fat-free broccoli. But don’t feel too bad if you fell for that one—lots of us did.
They do, however, give hormones to cows—both dairy cows and the kind that are raised for meat. A variety of hormones—both natural and synthetic—are used to increase milk production and to make cows grow to their slaughter weight faster. In fact, Science News reports that hormones are given to 80% of all U.S. feedlot cattle. Is this a problem?
Are Hormones in Food Unhealthy?
Some scientists fear that hormone residues in meat and milk could affect the humans who consume them, possibly affecting the age at which boys and girls reach puberty or increasing the risk of cancer. Environmentalists are concerned that a lot of those hormones are going to end up in the cow’s manure and will make their way into streams and rivers, affecting fish, frogs, and other sensitive fauna.
The cattle industry insists that the use of hormones is not only safe but benefits consumers by keeping costs down. They claim that “an overwhelming body of scientific evidence prov[es] its safety and effectiveness” and that there is a “worldwide scientific consensus to support the use of hormones.” Well, maybe not so much. The European Union has outlawed the use of hormones in cattle and banned beef imports from the United States on the basis of these concerns.
What’s the Evidence on Hormones in Meat and Milk?
So far, there is no definitive proof that giving hormones to cows causes problems in humans—or that it doesn’t. There simply haven’t been any large, conclusive studies done on the issue. Mostly, what we have are small, short-term safety studies conducted by the companies who sell the hormones. As you might imagine, there are some questions about the validity of these results.
Nonetheless, the U.S. FDA insists that the use of hormones in beef and dairy cattle poses no threat to human welfare and that meat and milk from cows given hormones is identical to meat and milk produced without hormones.
Industry representatives point out that the level of hormones in the meat is miniscule compared to the amount produced by our own bodies. In some cases, the level of hormones in treated cattle may be lower than the levels in untreated cattle. For example, an untreated bull would have much higher levels of natural testosterone than a castrated steer that is receiving hormone replacement therapy.
In the case of hormones given to dairy cows to increase milk production, this hormone is dismantled by the digestive process and is not absorbed into the bloodstream. Even if it were, the hormone is not recognized as a hormone by the human body and unlikely to have any effect.