Putting Beef Hormones into Context (AKA “How do you Make a Hormone…?”)

No Twinkies!Disclaimer – the alternative title is the start of one of my favorite jokes – in the interests of keeping this post PG-13, I’ll post the punch line at the end.

It never ceases to amaze me how selectively paranoid we are as a society. I know I’m not alone in avoiding certain behaviors because they seem too risky – I always wear my seatbelt (even in a pick-up driving at 10 mph through a pasture), I don’t put my phone in my lap (who knows what invisible radio waves are frying my internal organs?) and I’m convinced that if I eat a Twinkie (RIP?) it’ll instantly turn me into 400 lb couch potato. Yet I also drive too fast on the interstate, drink enough coffee to keep a polar bear wired for days and have the misguided impression that I can survive on 4 hours sleep per night (thank you NCBA Cattle Industry Convention 2013 for proving me right last week). There’s no doubt that I’m more likely to come to harm from the latter set of behaviors than the former, so why the dichotomy?

It appears to comes down to two main factors:

  • The perception of relative risk – am I more likely to be injured from driving fast or from not wearing a seatbelt?
  • The extent of our knowledge about the subject – I know what risks come with caffeine consumption and I accept them in exchange for improved work productivity, but who knows how addictive Twinkies really are? There’s a reason they’re sold in multi-packs…

Thanks to the preponderance of media articles and books about food production, we’re more educated as a society than we were 10 years ago, yet we still fail to understand the concept of relative risk:

  • Environmentally, the Meatless Mondays campaigns appear to make people feel good about saving the planet even as they drive their Hummer to Whole Foods to buy quinoa and kale salad for dinner
  • Socially, reusing grocery bags reduces waste, yet appears to come with a far higher risk of contracting E. coli (thank you David Hayden)
  • Healthwise, I have lost count of the conversations I’ve had with highly educated, health-conscious women who have stopped feeding beef or milk to their kids because of the hormones used in beef or dairy production. Yet this is one area where we have a huge amount of data, we just need to put it in context.

The birth-control pill contains almost 7,000x more estrogen than a steakYes, an 8-oz steak from a steer given a hormone implant contains more estrogen than a steak from a non-implanted animal. 42% more estrogen in fact. That’s undeniable. Yet the amount of estrogen in the steak from the implanted animal is minuscule: 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 equivalent of eating 3,431 lbs 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?

If birth-control is a sensitive subject, let’s compare it to vegetables: one 8-oz serving of cabbage = 5,411 nanograms of estrogen, over 1,000 times more estrogen than the same serving size of steak from a steer given a hormone implant. Yet Huffington Post, TIME magazine et al. aren’t up in arms about the dangers posed by cabbage consumption (NB. ~4,000 cabbage producers in the USA, please don’t send me hate mail, this is just an example).

Hormones are directly or indirectly responsible for everything that we do each day, from waking up to going to sleep, from the mundane to the life-changing. Yes, they are an intrinsic part of childhood development, yet the earlier ages at maturity we’re currently seeing in children have been attributed to increased levels of body fat (i.e. childhood obesity), not to exogenous hormone consumption. I’m not downplaying the consequences that hormones have on our long-term health and survival, just asking for a little balance – after all, where’s the risk in that?

*Oh, and the punchline to the joke above… “Don’t pay her!” (Sorry….)

40 thoughts on “Putting Beef Hormones into Context (AKA “How do you Make a Hormone…?”)

  1. One comment I receive from folks when sharing this information is a concern for the type of estrogens in different foods. They say their concern is that the type of estrogens in beef are more likely to affect us than the types in veggies.



      • We’ve been talking about the neuro-endocrine systems in my reproduction class. The topic of phytoestrogens has come up.

        I thought one comment was particularly interesting. Is it a minimum amount (vs a high level) of substances that have an influence, and once we surpass that level, does an inhibitory factor mask the effects?


  2. I was at the food dialogues in NYC and the pediatrician on the panel said that human bodies don’t even have the ability to break down the hormone rBST that may be found in milk. He confirmed that early childhood puberty is due to childhood obesity. Excellent article as always!!


  3. Great post! It’s funny how we as humans willfully ignore what is more likely to cause an early death and yet champion the causes against the things that in the end will have little if any difference in our lives.


  4. That’s reductionist thinking, sorry. All food have hormones naturally…but there is no good reason to ADD “synthetic” hormones to beef other than profit from much faster gains…I don’t think anyone could convince me that it doesn’t impact the meat and the eaters of it. Something has to explain all the girls getting boobs and periods at 8 and I don’t think it’s that we’ve increased our intake of cabbage recently!
    (the heavy use of “ovulation hormones” for synchronizing breeding in dairy herds is also highly suspect)


    • That’s an entirely fair point Janeen – I’m not trying to “convince” – simply to get information out there so that we can all make balanced decisions as consumers. Much as I love cabbage, I’m not sure we’re eating much more of it nowadays than in the past either! There’s no doubt that girls are reaching maturity earlier nowadays, however, childhood obesity is also increasing and the age at which puberty is reached appears to be dependent on the level of body fat (as a side-note, that is why athletes or others with very low body fat levels cease to menstruate). Some scientific articles on this topic (from the Journal “Pediatrics”) are housed here: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/108/2/347.short and here: http://www.reproduction-online.org/content/140/3/399.abstract and here: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/126/3/e591.full.pdf+html I hope this helps clarify.


    • I’ve often hypothesised (and I’m quite certain I’ve read this somewhere although I can’t cite from which source(s)) that “early onset” puberty could perhaps be a reflection of the overall better nutrition that the western diet provides. Shock and horror! That flies directly in the face of anti-western fear mongering that is en vogue, but it does make sense if one ponders outside of the haze of Luddite fear. Girls reach reproductive maturity when their bodies are ready to nutritionally and physically handle the biological stressors of pregnancy. Believe it or not, we in the west–in this current time–are more nutritionally nourished than our counterparts in other times and places. When is the last time you’ve heard of vitamin deficiencies and famines wreaking havoc in the west as was the case for most of human history? Up until fairly recently in human history, in fact, the pinnacle of being healthy and reproductively desireable (aka beautiful) was being fat and pale.

      I cringe when reading article after article in the popular media bemoaning the fact that girls are reaching puberty earlier than they were “back in the day” and then using it as a way to show that our modern diet is crappy (as if there was some utopian time and place in our collective history where food and teeth were plenty and medical care was routine–oh wait, that would be the HERE and NOW). It shows a sad lack of both historical and scientific understanding. That, and it’s just not cool to appreciate the West..


      • Sara- absolutely agree. Too convenient to try and blame everything on “big ag” and spurious correlations, when it’s simple biology – age at puberty is governed by body fat, now just as it was 500 years ago!


  5. Wow. What a shitty way to end your arguement. You terminated your well thought out musings with a punchline that chucks your entire sex under the bus as well as implicating that the sex trade is hilarious. Way to go doctor.


    • Wow! I’ll take the “well thought out musings” compliment – thanks. The punchline was simply a joke, please don’t try and make it into an attack on gender politics or a commentary on the sex trade. Aside from anything else, men can be sex-workers (and thus “whores”) too – it was not female specific.


  6. It’s also about choice. Equating the hormone in beef to that in birth control pills is nonsense. Some women choose to take birth control pills and supposedly their doctors monitor them – but no men I know of take them. BTW, I am a beef eater and try to get natural – no hormones added – beef, but that’s not cheap and has not been an option for very long.


    • You’re absolutely right – one of the risk components that I debated about including (but didn’t as I didn’t want to make the post too long) was the voluntary vs. involuntary risk aspect. We all have a choice as to what to eat – I’ll always defend the right of anybody to choose whatever they like to eat, even if I question the motivation behind the choice (e.g. my irrational hatred of Twinkies but love for deep-fried cheese curds!)


  7. Well done Jude, I like the approach. Have you sorted the numbers on water per Kg of beef. It still get quoted even by people in the industry who should know better. It’s making people feel guilty about rain fed grass. Which is bizarre.


    • Toby- Thanks! The water footprint question is still under development – I know the IDF are putting together a methodology – hopefully something will come out of that. Unfortunately most of the publicity is still going to the “every drop of water that falls should be counted” brigade – will be interesting to see whether they reduce their #’s given the drought in the US!


  8. Great Article – really gives a person something to think about and create discussion topics among friends; co-workers, etc. Oh and the joke was awesome! If you have ever worked with animals in any capacity, you know we have all told worst jokes than that; gives a new one for the annals. Thank you for this article and all the others.


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  10. Great piece! I’m a mixed animal vet & cow/calf producer. My passion is beef production medicine. I stumbled across this post & plan to follow your writings closely to arm myself with more info when discussing the beef industry with anti-ag folks or their followers!


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  16. Hi, fantastic article. Could you please cite some of the data articles on it or give a reference list. I am a Food animal veterinarian so I often get confronted by people about this hormones theme and I am very prone to post scientific papers to rebuke their claims, and as much as I love this article, without citations I usually get the…this is all based on unfounded opinions. Thank you and keep the good work!


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