The horrors of hormones? Truth is, we can’t live (or eat) without them.

These Jersey cows are healthy high producing cows. They lie on deep bedded sand and congregate with their own social herd pecking order. Of all the cattle breeds, Jerseys seem to be the most curious.  Photo by Sherry Bunting

By Sherry Bunting

A while back, I tackled the subject of food labeling in a consumer column. We covered the rigorous testing by which ALL milk is actually antibiotic free. But people still had questions. They kept hearing about hormones in milk and meat, and they see labels stating “hormone free” and wonder what to make of it all.

So we’ll turn our attention to the hormone question and the labels we see.

The biology news flash of the day is that there are hormones in pretty much everything we eat — that is, if it was derived from a living organism.

And yes, that goes for the plant-derived foods we consume also!

In fact, endocrinologists and reproductive physiologists explain hormones as small chemicals that are produced naturally by and circulate throughout all living things! These hormones instruct cells and tissues on how to adjust, grow, reproduce and thrive.

Without hormones, life could not exist. All foods come from living things — both plant and animal. Technically, all life requires hormones. Thus, all living things, plants and animals, contain hormones.

So, if someone tries to sell you ‘hormone-free’ products, and you know it did not come from a rock, well, technically, it can’t be ‘hormone-free’.

In the hormone conversation, the most important thing that is missing these days is perspective and context!

Jude Capper, a livestock sustainability consultant and former university professor, explains it this way:

“The amount of estrogen in the steak from the implanted animal is miniscule: 5.1 nanograms. One nanogram (one-billionth of a gram or one-25-billionth of an ounce) is roughly equivalent to one blade of grass on a football field. By contrast, one birth-control pill, taken daily by over 100 million women worldwide, contains 35,000 nanograms of estrogen. That’s the equivalent of eating 3,431 pounds of beef from a hormone-implanted animal every single day. To put it another way, it’s the annual beef consumption of 59 adults. Doesn’t that put it into perspective?”

To repeat: One birth control pill contains the hormone equivalent to the amount of beef eaten by 59 adults in one year. So one month of birth control is equivalent to the amount of beef 59 adults would eat in 30 years.

Perspective.

Here’s another comparison from Dr. Troy Ott, a professor of reproductive physiology at Penn State:

“If you set the amount of estrogenic activity in a 3 oz steak equal to one M&M candy, then 3 oz of tofu (made from soy plants) would contain a tractor-trailer full of M&M – that’s 19 million times more. Big difference! But fear not, eat your tofu because your liver is there to deal with any substances that enter your body from the food you eat.”

Whew! Whether you are a vegetarian, carnivore or omnivore, it’s good to know the hormone food topic is not so scary after all.

Hormones are the beneficial agents of life on the planet Earth. They regulate every process of life. When we consume plant and animal foods, we are consuming hormones that our bodies recognize as nutrients!

Perhaps the confusion about hormones stems from all of the talk in sports these days about steroid use. That’s a much different conversation. The hormones in plants and animals – that we consume – are first of all digested and secondly recognized by our human bodies as nutrients, not steroids.

Trent Loos, a seventh generation rancher, explains it this way: “Misinformation and misunderstanding of the value of hormones to our everyday life have perpetuated the concern over hormones. Some of that has certainly been the result of activists and those attempting to remove technology and efficiency from the food production system. However, some also has been the result of misleading messages…” in the area of marketing.”

He cites researchers from Lafayette College, who have shown how hormones regularly improve our lives. Many common foods naturally contain estrogen (or in the case of plants, phytoestrogen) at levels hundreds or thousands of times higher than the levels in any dairy or meat product to come from animals — even those animals that may have been given additional hormone to more efficiently produce food at a more affordable price for a growing world.

In fact, if you tested milk from rbST-treated cows versus cows that did not receive rbST (recombinant bovine somatotropin) you would find no difference in the milk. Likewise for beef that comes from a steer (neutered male) that received hormone replacement at a specific time in its growth and the appropriate withdrawal time observed before harvest. The beef from that hormone-implanted steer would test pretty close to the natural hormone levels in the beef from an untreated, non-pregnant female beef animal.

As we read labels and marketing materials about the food we feed our families, here is a checklist to consider:

— Context is everything, so keep a perspective about this topic and the various label claims when determining how to spend your food dollar.

— The hormones being debated (either at naturally-occurring or at enhanced levels for production efficiency) are protein hormones, not steroid hormones.

— Our bodies do not recognize these protein hormones as hormones, but rather as nutrients! It’s pretty cool to think about how wonderfully we are made.

— Hormones are found in every living thing – be it plant or animal! In other words – food!

— There is no difference in the hormone content of milk whether or not the cows received hormone treatments for enhanced productivity at any point in their life. But that said, most dairy farms have given up this practice for many years because of consumer confusion. Most milk in stores is produced from cows not treated with rBST or rbGH and is labeled this way as well.

— In the long run, animal productivity benefits consumers by helping to keep food costs more affordable than they would otherwise be. Food prices are rising but the farmer’s portion of the consumer dollar is at an all-time low of 14 cents today.

While some want to debate hormone-free meat and milk and create fear in the minds of consumers, the truth is that we encounter far higher levels in plant foods, which we readily consume without question.

Here is a short-list showing just some of the eye-opening example comparisons compiled by the researchers at Lafayette College. (ng = nanogram)

  • 4 ounces of beef from untreated steer: 1.2 ng of estrogen
  • 4 ounces of beef from non-pregnant heifer: 1.5 ng of estrogen
  • 4 ounces of beef from steer given hormones: 1.6 ng of estrogen
  • 3 ounces of milk from cow given recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST): 11 ng of estrogen
  • 3 ounces of milk from non-rbST-treated cow: 11 ng of estrogen
  • 4 ounces of raw peas: 454 ng of estrogen
  • 4 ounces of raw cabbage: 2,700 ng of estrogen
  • Average soy latte (one cup of soy milk): 30,000 ng of estrogen
  • 3.5 ounces of soy protein concentrate: 102,000 ng of estrogen
  • 3 ounces of soybean oil: 168,000 ng of estrogen
  • Average level in a woman of childbearing age: 480,000 ng of estrogen per day
  • Average level in a pre-pubertal girl: 54,000 ng of estrogen per day

A former newspaper editor, Sherry Bunting has been writing about dairy, livestock and crop production for over 35 years. Before that, she milked cows. She can be reached at agrite2011@gmail.com

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