Hormone-free, antibiotic-free, cage-free, free run, grass fed, organic… are you confused by these labels on our meat, poultry and eggs? Here’s the information you need to make informed choices at your grocery store for animal welfare and your health. Let’s start with taking a closer look at the use of growth hormones in the food supply.
What are growth hormones?
Growth hormones occur naturally in humans and animals to promote growth and development. In the lab, synthetic or man-made versions of these hormones are also created for medicine or the food industry. Both natural and man-made hormones are used in the food supply to increase production and lower costs.
In meat, these hormones make the animals grow bigger faster. The hormones promote the growth of lean muscle and reduce the amount of fat the animal stores on its body, leading to leaner cuts of meat. These hormones promote growth of the animals while feeding them less, which helps lower costs.
In dairy cows, a man-made hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is sometimes used to make the cows produce more milk.
Where are they found?
In Canada, only cows used for beef are given growth hormones. Growth hormones are not used in dairy cows, pork, chicken, turkey or other meats. In the US, growth hormones are used in meat production and in dairy cattle. The use of growth hormones in food production is banned in the European Union.
How are hormone levels in animals measured?
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) inspects beef and tests it for levels of man-made hormones. The amount of man-made hormones allowed in Canadian beef is zero. However, the amount of natural hormones that were used in raising the animals is difficult to measure. This is because testing does not separate out the hormones the animal’s body produced naturally and the amount that was given to the animal. Research suggests that higher amounts of growth hormones may be present in animals given added hormones, but is still in the range of levels naturally found in animals.
What are the concerns?
There are concerns that adding natural and man-made hormones to the food supply may increase cancer risk, but this has never been studied. The few research studies that have been done on foods from animals treated with growth hormones do not show negative effects on human health. Still, little is known about the long-term effect of growth hormones in the food supply on our health.
Some people suspect that early puberty, a risk factor for breast cancer, may be related to hormones used in meat production. So far this has not been proven and more research needs to be done. Also, milk cows treated with the growth hormone rBGH have higher levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) – a hormone used in the US but not Canada – which may increase cancer risk. It is unclear whether IGF-1 in milk raises blood levels in humans, and what blood levels of IGF-1 affect cancer risk. This is another area where more research is needed.
How do I lower my exposure?
Because of the lack of information about the effect of added growth hormones on our health, I recommend using caution and lowering your exposure where you can.
To lower your exposure to growth hormones, choose organic beef when possible or eat beef less often. If you are in the US, choose organic milk products or milk products from cows that have not been treated with rBGH.
Don’t be fooled by beef labelled as “hormone-free”. Animals naturally produce hormones, so no meat can be hormone-free. Claims about the use of hormones in the food supply are not regulated, meaning that farms are not inspected to ensure these terms reflect how the animals are raised. Only organic meat is inspected to make sure the animals are raised without added growth hormones. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) visits farms and food production facilities to make sure they are following organic practices to be certified as organic.
The nutrition research to date shows that the best way to lower your cancer risk is to choose vegetarian meals more often and limit red meat to 18 ounces (cooked weight) a week. A 4 ounce serving of meat is the size of a deck of cards. To lower cancer risk, it is also important to avoid processed meats such as hot dogs, sausages, salami, and bacon.