Worried about Artificial Hormones in Your Child's Meat and Dairy?
The debate over the use of hormones in the meat and dairy industry continues to rage. While the practice is legal and approved by the FDA, many parents – and pediatricians – are worried about the effects hormones will have on children. It’s important then, for parents to know the facts before they make a decision about whether or not to reduce their child’s exposure.
Dairy Cows and RBGH
The use of hormones in the cattle industry began back in the 1930’s. It was severely limited, however, until the 1980’s when new technology allowed artificial hormones to be manufactured on a large scale. It was in 1993 that the FDA officially approved the use of rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) for use in the dairy industry. This was after the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine concluded that the rBGH found in milk would not have an impact on human health since it exists at levels much lower than what a person’s body makes naturally.
Concerns about RBGH
RBGH, however, can stimulate the production of another hormone called insulin-dependent growth factor, or IGF. Higher levels of IGF have been linked to an increased risk in breast cancer, but it’s not clear whether these higher levels are caused by rBGH in dairy products.
Sex Hormones in Meat and Dairy
Also beginning in the 1930’s, synthetic estrogens were used in the cattle industry to promote growth. A synthetic estrogen called DES was one of the first of these to be used, but it was later banned after it was linked to an increased cancer risk.
Today, there are six sex hormones that have been approved by the FDA for use on cattle or sheep (not allowed in poultry or pork). Three of them are natural: Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, all human sex hormones. Three of them are artificial: Zeranol, trenbolone acetate, and melengestrol acetate, which are all used to promote growth.
The Challenge of Testing
Milk and meat samples cannot be tested for the presence of estrogen, progesterone, or testosterone because it’s impossible to distinguish between hormones that are there naturally, and ones that might be a residue from hormones used to promote growth.
What can be tested is the artificial growth hormones. Zeranol, for instance, has been found in meat from hormone-treated cows. Because of concerns regarding the health impact of these hormones, the FDA currently has established “acceptable daily intakes”.
There are deep concerns about the health impact of long-term exposure to these artificial hormones. Hormones affect more than just reproduction. They also regulate important body functions like metabolism, growth and development, and immunity.
Some experts believe that the use of these hormones:
- Increases the incidence of early menstruation/sexual development in girls; early menstruation is a risk factor for several forms of cancer
- Increases risk for certain forms of cancer such as breast and prostate cancer
- Increases risk for thyroid disease
- Increases risk for female reproductive problems like fibroid cysts in the uterus, endometriosis, and infertility
- Increases risk for male reproductive problems like low sperm count
- Increases immune responses such as allergies and asthma
However, to date, there have been no studies done to either confirm or deny these worries. This lack of research is remarkable, considering how many people around the country – and world – consume hormone-treated milk and meat on a daily basis.
This uncertainty and lack of knowledge about the consequences of hormone exposure led to a 1988 European Union ban on the practice. It’s also banned in Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Israel (for religious reasons regarding kosher practices).
The U.S. market is changing however, with the consumer demand for products that are hormone-free. Several important grocery store chains such as Krogers, Safeway, and Natural Grocery will only sell hormone-free milk now.
Because of consumer demand, use of hormones in the food production industry has dropped dramatically in recent years. Now, only around 20% of the cattle raised in the United States receive artificial hormone injections.
If you want to avoid meat and dairy products raised with hormones, look for the “hormone-free” label or buy organic meat and dairy.
Are you concerned about artificial hormones in your foods? What do you look for when you buy meat and dairy?