Hormones in my organic food? Yep.

By Christopher R. Raines

I recently ate at a local restaurant and, of course, noted the “hormone-free grass-fed beef” on the menu.  I asked the server if those were the teeniest, tiniest cows they’d ever seen — no response.  As many opportunistic farmers seek ways to add value (excellent thinking!) to the food they produce, they naturally turn to specialized food production claims (very doable).  One of those circulating, albeit inaccurately, is “hormone-free.”  To many, this may seem like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, yet these two statements have inherently different meanings:

  • “Hormone-free” <- impossible
  • “Produced/Raised without added hormones” <- possible

This is particularly interesting because all multicellular organisms (beans, cows, lentils, birds, bees, kelp, whatever) possess naturally-occurring hormones and thus, no meat can ever be “hormone-free.”  A reason additional hormones are administered to cattle is because they compliment the effects of already existent hormones thereby resulting in boosted growth or production.  In the simplest sense — As cows do their thing, converting otherwise inedible roughage and other feeds into meat or milk, the administered hormone (usually in the form of a small implant in the ear, or an injection — ideally, in the tail head or neck), they “use” it like they use the pre-existing, naturally-occuring hormone.  The result is meat that differs minimally in its hormone content compared with meat from its organically-raised counterpart.

Oh, but there is research showing “significantly” more estrogen in beef from implanted cattle compared to non-implanted?  Perhaps.  But how do you define significant?  In the scientific realm, the term “significant” is used, for example, to compare response levels of treatment X vs. Y.  If X is consistently greater than Y, then it may be deemed significant — in the statistical sense.  See, there’s a little value called the P-value, which is a probability.  The arbitrary “magic” P-value for a “significant” difference is 0.05, and another way of interpreting that is:  There is a 95% chance that the values of X and Y (in the conditions presented) will be different.  Then, it is indeed possible that, say 1.6 is significantly “different” from 1.8.  Colloquially, however, “significant” as related to a quantity is interpreted as “a lot.”  Two very different meanings!

Comparisons regarding the “level” of hormones in common foods, estrogenic activity:

Estrogen produced, in nanograms per day:

And contrary to popular belief in regard to the administration of additional hormones (as reflected by some advertising methods), this cannot be done to pigs and poultry in the United States.  So, when you find chicken or pork with the label “raised without added hormones,” this means scientifically squat compared with its conventional, commodity counterpart.  If I purchased “hormone-free” beef, analyzed it, and (surprise!) found hormones, is that grounds for lawsuit?

No meat or milk can be “hormone-free” — it’s impossible. The only way to have any hormone-free animal-based protein (or any protein, really) is (potentially) to grow it in a Petri dish via the creative complexing of various chemicals.  Those selling “hormone-free” meat are not selling laboratory-grown proteinaceous goo, just misinformation.  Bon appetit.

Other links about hormones in animal products:

TDE’s Biotech Blog – Hormones and Milk – The Deceptive Marketing Continues

FSIS Fact Sheet – Beef….From Farm to Table

Beef Myths – Beef Cattle Production | Growth Hormones in Cattle

Health Library – Added Hormones in Beef and Dairy