Everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about hormones in milk

The idea for this post was sparked by an encounter I had with a customer at work, a local coffee shop.

I was at the drive-up window when a lady asked for a coffee with a cream base, only if our milk was hormone free, but wanted almond milk if it wasn’t. I was stumped by this question, but eagerly asked her to explain what she meant to help her get the right drink, and because I was personally intrigued.

She asked to see the container of milk and almost immediately smiled and pointed to a sticker. On the lower front-side was blue sticker that said “rBGH free”, so small that my co-workers and I had never noticed it. She explained to me that she was breast-feeding and it’s not good to give your newborn these kinds of hormones, so she’s careful with things like milk.

Before this experience, I would have assumed all store bought cow’s milk have hormones in it. So naturally, I did some research.

The hormone bovine somatotrophin naturally occurs in cows, though a genetically engineered version named rBGH (also called rBST) is sometimes given to the animal to expedite the maturity process and thus produce more milk, faster. This process was first used in 1993, and continued to grow in popularity in the years following. However, as personal health ownership and public health education have become more prevalent, fewer cows are being injected with it to appease consumer requests. So why do people care if it’s in their dairy products?

According to the Center for Food Safety, the hormone injection prompts a chain-reaction type problem, starting with a correlation between cows treated and those that develop numerous health conditions such as lameness, udder infections (mastitis) and infertility, just to name a few. To combat the growing amount of cows’ health issues, farmers are using more antibiotics, which can leave residue in the dairy products sold on the supermarket shelves. Some studies report that these residues can be linked to human allergic reactions and encourage the build up of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which in turn undermines the effectiveness of human antibiotics.

Additionally, a hormone called “insulin-like growth factor-1” (IFG-1) is said to be found in the milk produced from cows treated with the rBGH hormone. There are several sources that claim IFG-1 is a factor in the development of breast, colon and prostate cancer. According to Breast Cancer Action, there is conflicting evidence on whether IFG-1 survives in the digestive system or not, but the inconclusiveness is enough to raise concern. The potential health consequences were enough to convince places like Japan, Canada and the 27 countries of the European Union to ban the use of rBGH in their cows.

The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed rBGH treated products safe to consume for humans. Some companies like Shamrock Farms acknowledge this position, but pledge to keep their cows free of this hormone to satisfy their customers requests.

In the FDA’s report on the safety of rBGH, last updated in late 2014, they claim the connection between rBGH and IFG-1, as well as IFG-1 to cancer are both insignificant.

In a published review of the hormone by The American Cancer Society, a study was presented in which the levels of IFG-1 were measured in subjects who drank cow’s milk or soymilk, and discovered the amount to be similar. This finding suggests the possibility that it’s not rGBH, and rather another element in milk, as a factor for increased IFG-1.

Grace Communications Foundation published an interesting piece which amongst other things, expressed that the gentleman responsible for writing the FDA labeling guidelines regarding this issue, was formally a lawyer for Monsanto, before working for the FDA. Monsanto is the original producer of the rBGH hormone (it was sold to Eli Lilly in 2008). This kind of conflict of interest, lobbying and/or political influence is not foreign amongst matters that affect public health and marketing, though rarely gets noticed by consumers.

The American Cancer society takes no formal stance regarding rGBH, and notes on their report of the hormone that there is correlation between the use of the substance and cow health, but the evidence regarding the impact upon human ingestion and specifically as it relates to causing cancer, is inconclusive.

Not all milk has contains this rBGH, although unless it’s labeled “rBGH free”, it’s a possibility.

I’m certainly in no qualified position to make a recommendation on whether or not you should eliminate products made from cows injected with rBGH from your diet. Though because it isn’tdefinitely safe, I now understand the precautions the mom I met at work took, avoiding hormone ingestion when it concerns the health of a newborn child.

I hope that my efforts to both compile information for this post and understand this issue better can save you some time and this piece serves as a tool you can use to make your own decision, or at the least, be a more informed consumer.