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Why ‘hormone-free’ beef is no better for people or the environment

Last week on this blog we busted some common myths around beef production, including the ‘hormone-free’ myth. This week, we offer more facts about hormones and beef.

Foods and hormones

Dr. Roy Lewis, a veterinarian at Westlock Veterinary Center in Westlock, AB, told us that roughly 98 per cent of cattle in Canada are implanted with hormones, but in quantities significantly lower than would be naturally present in an intact (uncastrated) bull.

“In fact,” he continued, “many healthy, nutritious foods contain more hormones, serving for serving, than beef – foods such as cabbage, eggs, alfalfa sprouts and soy”.

Hormone levels in foodsNo one would suggest eliminating these healthy food options because of their naturally occurring hormones, and yet beef contains considerably less.

Research has also shown that hormones consumed in food are broken down in the stomach during digestion. They do not result in hormone spikes, even when consumed in high levels.

The environment and hormones

Cattle are implanted with hormones to promote growth. “This allows beef producers to produce more beef using less grain, less water and less time,” said Dr. Lewis. “The environmental benefits of producing more with less are significant.”

How marketing creates misconceptions

“There is no such thing as ‘hormone-free’ beef,” said Dr. Lewis. “All animals and plants produce hormones as part of their natural life-cycle.

The ‘hormone-free’ movement is a marketing scheme that attempts to create a differentiation that doesn’t exist. It seems to me that we’re taking a step backwards to promote this as something special, because there are no food safety benefits, and they’re suggesting that a less sustainable production method is somehow superior.

You can learn more about beef hormones, and read about food safety research on Alberta Beef’s Worried about Hormones? web page.

Check out the other myths we addressed in ‘Busted! 5 beef myths that don’t stand up to the facts’.

Busted! 5 beef myths that don’t stand up to the facts

When it comes to the food you eat, you want to know the facts. Is it sustainably and ethically produced? Is it good for you? Unfortunately, the many misconceptions surrounding beef production make it hard to get accurate, reliable information. Here are five of the most common myths:

Myth #1 Pastureland is a waste of good agricultural land

Most cattle are pastured on land that is unsuitable for crop production, for instance, because it is too hilly, stony, boggy or dry. Those grasslands also help maintain watersheds, sequester carbon, prevent erosion and support biodiversity.

In the feedlot, the animals are typically fed grains that do not meet specifications for human consumption and would otherwise be wasted.

Myth #2 Beef is bad for your health

Red meats are the best source of high-quality dietary protein relative to caloric intake, as well as being rich in nutrients, such as zinc, iron and Vitamin B12.

Recent research has shown that the advice to eat less red meat could result in an increased incidence of iron-deficiency anemia – and it has been documented that Canadians, on average, are not consuming the recommended serving of red meat within the current Canadian Food Guide recommendations for meat and alternatives.

Myth #3 Antibiotic-free beef is better for you

The use of antibiotics in food animals is strictly regulated, and feedlots work closely with veterinarians to ensure they are used appropriately. There are mandatory withdrawal times between the use of an antibiotic and the harvesting of an animal, to ensure the meat is antibiotic-free.

Without the use of antibiotics, animals can get sick, suffer and die, even though there are no known food safety benefits.

Myth #4 Cattle in feedlots are kept in cramped, unsanitary conditions

Cattle in feedlots are provided with spacious pens that allow each animal ample room to move and interact naturally. To ensure the cattle are comfortable during their stay, bedding is added regularly for resting as well as warmth in the winter. Timely removal of animal waste helps keep animals healthy and ensure their well-being. Cattle are also given ample amounts of clean, fresh water and a nutritious, easily digestible, high-energy diet consisting of 80% grains and 20% forages.

Myth #5 Hormone-free beef is better for you

Research has shown that any hormones in the meat we consume are broken down by digestive enzymes and stomach acid. Very little reaches the bloodstream. For those concerned about hormones, there are two important points to note:

    • No meat is hormone-free! All animals have hormones naturally occurring in their systems.
    • When you eat a burger, there are more hormones in the bun than in the meat.

Next week on this blog, Roy Lewis, of Westlock Veterinary Center, north of Edmonton, will explain why the use of hormones in food animals is not just safe, but also an environmentally responsible way to raise food.

Beef and hormones: what the science says

In a recent post on this blog, we explained why hormones are used in beef cattle production, and explored the implications for both animals and people. This week we continue that topic with a look at the science behind hormone use.

To find out whether Canadians should be concerned about the use of hormones in beef production, we spoke with Reynold Bergen, science director with the Canadian Beef Research Council (BCRC).

What the research says

“Hormone use has been the subject of numerous independent studies,” said Reynold. “In 2014, James Magolski and his co-workers at North Dakota State University, published the results of a study that used pigs to find out whether growth implants used in beef production could cause young girls to hit puberty sooner. The results provided us with a great deal of insight.”

Reynold explained that the main findings of the study were as follows:

    • Pigs were fed one of four diets. Two contained beef, either from cattle raised without hormone implants, or from cattle implanted with hormones. Two were vegetarian diets (containing canola meal low in natural plant estrogens, or a soy meal high in natural plant estrogens). Estrogen levels were the same in the diets that contained beef from implanted cattle, unimplanted cattle, or canola meal. Estrogen levels were higher in the soy-based tofu diet, because of naturally occurring plant estrogens.
    • None of the four diets – whether they contained high or low levels of estrogen – resulted in a higher level of estrogen or progesterone in the animal’s blood. This is because stomach acids and digestive enzymes break down the vast majority of hormones consumed in the diet; very few of them are absorbed into the bloodstream.
    • The effects on the test animals’ growth and reproductive characteristics were the same for all four diets.

“In other words,” Reynold explained, “there are more hormones in the bun than in the burger. But, in any case, neither has any effect on the person consuming the food.”

You can learn more about this study in the BCRC blog post ‘These little piggies ate a quarter pounder a day.’

Stay tuned for an upcoming post in which we will be discussing another topic that is both controversial and subject to misinformation – the use of antibiotics in beef cattle production.

Beef and hormones: should Canadians be concerned?

These days we hear a lot in the media about the use of hormones in food production. In fact, ‘hormone-free’ has become a common advertising theme. This week on this blog, we’re taking a look at why food producers use hormones, and whether Canadians have any cause for concern. Read more