Hormones in Food: Should You Worry?

Consumer advocates are concerned about growth and sex hormones in the food supply, but it's not clear if these hormones truly are bad for our health


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A salmon that grows to market size twice as fast as normal. Dairy cows that produce 15% more milk. Beef cows that grow 20% faster.

What do these hyper-productive animals have in common? Thanks to injections and implants (in the case of cows) or genetic engineering (in the case of salmon), they contain artificially high levels of sex or growth hormones.

Are these hormones dangerous to the humans who eat the food or drink the milk? The food industry says no—and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees, at least when it comes to cows.

The FDA, which regulates the use of hormones in livestock, hasn't yet decided whether it will approve the sale of a genetically engineered salmon patented by the biotech company AquaBounty. If the salmon—which is wired to produce growth hormone year-round, instead of just in the spring and summer—gets an OK from the agency, it will be the first genetically engineered animal to wind up on your dinner plate. (Genetically engineered fruits and vegetables have been around for years.)

The FDA's stamp of approval isn't likely to reassure those who worry that excess hormones in the food supply are contributing to cancer, early puberty in girls, and other health problems in humans. For years, consumer advocates and public health experts have fought to limit the use of hormones in cows, and some support a ban on the practice similar to the one in place in Europe, where food regulations are generally more stringent than in the U.S.

But it's not clear if such hormones truly are bad for our health. Surprisingly little research has been done on the health effects of these hormones in humans, in part because it's difficult to separate the effects of added hormones from the mixture of natural hormones, proteins, and other components found in milk and meat. Buying organic may reassure shoppers, but there's little proof these products are indeed safer.

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By Carina Storrs
Last Updated: January 19, 2011

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