When shopping at your favorite grocery store, you may notice that some of the beef at the meat counter is labeled “no hormones” or “raised without hormones” and likely costs more.
In reality, there is no such thing as hormone-free beef. All living things, whether plants or animals, naturally produce hormones for growth, reproduction and the body’s daily functions.
Farmers sometimes give hormone implants to cattle to help encourage growth and increase the animals’ lean muscle mass, says Dr. Grant Dewell, Extension beef veterinarian and professor at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dewell says cattle farmers have used hormones for more than 50 years as a safe, sustainable way to raise beef using less feed and fewer resources.
“There are definitely some marketing channels for non-(hormone)-implanted beef, or natural beef ..., and some people are willing to pay for that," Dewll says.
"But from an overall standpoint, there really is no difference in non-implanted versus implanted beef as far as taste, quality and safety,” he adds.
Even in hormone-implanted beef, the hormone levels in the meat remain extremely small, Dewell says.
A single 4-ounce serving of hormone-implanted beef contains about 1.6 nanograms of estrogen, compared to 1.2 nanograms in a single serving of non-implanted beef.
To put that in perspective, 1 nanogram is equal to one drop of water in a standard-sized swimming pool, Dewell says.
And surprisingly, many plant-based foods contain much higher amounts of estrogen-type compounds compared to beef, he explains.
For example, a cup of soymilk has 25,000 nanograms of estrogen. Cabbage, peas and peanuts also have 1,000 fold or more estrogen than implanted beef.
Plus, the level of estrogen we consume from foods is minimal compared to the amount of estrogen produced by our own bodies, Dewell notes. In humans, females produce almost 500,000 nanograms of estrogen a day. Males produce about 200,000 nanograms of estrogen daily.
“There is really no health concerns with the usage of (hormone) implants. The estrogen activity is lower in beef than it is in some of our other common foods like peas and soybeans, and there are no health risks,” Dewell says.
And despite internet rumors claiming that hormones in beef cause early puberty in girls, there is no scientific evidence to back this claim, Dewell says.
In addition, hormones don’t impact beef quality, taste or safety, he says.
What it really comes down to is consumer choice, Dewell adds. If consumers prefer to buy non-hormone-implanted beef, and are willing to pay more for it, then farmers will provide it.
“We’re glad that consumers have the choice and have the ability,” Dewell says. “But there is a large portion of the population that doesn’t have the disposable income to make that choice. So using all of our resources to produce beef as sustainably as we can will help make sure that everybody has access to high-quality, safe food.”
For more information about hormones in beef, visit the Best Food Facts website at https://www.bestfoodfacts.org/hormones-in-cattle/.