Synthetic Hormones in Food

The possible health risks of added hormones in the food your child eats
By Vanessa Papas

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When one hears the words “growth hormones in food”, it’s easy to visualise giant cows, towering corn and rivers of milk. While hormones occur naturally in plants, animals and humans, it’s concerning when synthetic hormones are added to the foods our children eat.
 
According to Cape Town nutritional therapist, Megan Bosman, studies have shown growth hormones added to certain foods can affect your child’s development and wellbeing. “One of the biggest concerns is that synthetic hormones can bring on early puberty in children. This is especially evident in girls as they are starting to menstruate at a much younger age,” says Bosman. “Other studies have shown certain growth hormones can also cause breast enlargement in boys. Synthetic hormones are the centre of concern when it comes to illnesses linked to high oestrogen levels, like breast cancer, fibroids, ovarian cancer and prostate cancer. Oestrogen in excess can also cause weight gain, as growth in oestrogen-sensitive tissue leads to increased fat tissue. What some parents may not realise is that in addition to synthetic hormones added to meat and milk, soya contains high amounts of oestrogen, and there are also chemicals that mimic oestrogen in food called xenoestrogens, which are found in plastics, chemical sprays and fertilisers.”
 
The majority of meat consumed in South Africa has added hormones, which are given to animals to make them gain weight faster, thus producing meat products for consumers at a faster rate. 
 
“For decades in South Africa, almost all abattoir meat has been produced with the aid of hormones, and it is known to be a completely safe practice,” says the Food Advisory Consumer Service (FACS), a resource that provides consumers with scientifically correct information on food and nutrition issues. FACS is administered by the South African Association for Food Science and Technology – a non-profit organisation for food scientists and other technical food professionals.
 
FACS explains that there are four anabolic steroids (hormones) commonly used in promoting the growth of animals – two naturally occurring and two synthetic hormones. When used as recommended, these hormones are safe for both the animal and the final consumer. “In the meat industry, hormones are used only for a short period while the animal is being fattened on a feedlot. In feedlots, for example, a 10-month-old steer or heifer of 200kg receives an ear implant that contains hormones. After about 100 days of feeding, the animal has grown to 400kg, when it is ready for slaughter. The implants promote improved conversion of feed into muscle by up to 20 percent and also ensure that our abattoir meat has a low fat content. Without the use of hormones, bovines require about three years to achieve slaughter weight, whereas here the aim is to slaughter animals at 18 to 24 months old for improved farming efficiency. In most cases, our legislation has set the allowed limits lower than those required internationally. The use of hormones in red meat production is permitted and controlled by the Department of Agriculture, which means that products and usage levels are known and residues can be monitored.”
 
Nathalie Mat, associate dietician at MME Dietitians in Bryanston, Gauteng, says one of the most frequently asked questions is whether eating meat from hormone-treated animals increases the risk of girls developing breast cancer as adults. “While some studies have found certain synthetic hormones in meat may exert some effects on health issues like breast cancer, testicular cancer, obesity, diabetes, glucose intolerance and high cholesterol, one should be wary of attributing blame to the chemicals in the food chain. Considering two thirds of South Africans are overweight or obese, and this is one of the main contributing factors to the above-listed conditions, one should first address the likely calorie imbalance that leads to weight gain before pointing fingers at the miniscule input that any contaminants are likely to have.”
 
In addition to meat production, hormones are also used to increase milk production in animals. As milk is an important part of your child’s diet, providing them with calcium and muscle-building proteins, should parents worry about the added hormones in milk and milk products? Cows naturally produce a hormone called Bovine Somatotropin (BST) that helps them produce milk. In order to increase milk production, some farmers inject their dairy cows with a genetically engineered drug called Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST). Although legal in South Africa, rBST is banned in Japan, Canada, Australia and the European Union, and has been linked to increased rates in colon, breast and prostate cancer.
 
“We believe that raw milk should not contain any added hormones,” says Anneke Smalman, senior liaison officer at Clover, a company that produces milk that is free of any hormones or traces of antibiotics. “We do more than 60 tests on our fresh milk before it reaches the consumer to ensure that it’s safe for human consumption. Clean raw milk from organic grass-fed cows contains only the precisely balanced trace amounts that are naturally occurring, providing your child with the best source of nutrients nature has to offer.”
 
Guide for parents
 
By avoiding hormone-treated meat and dairy products, you can limit your child’s exposure to synthetic hormone chemicals.
 
  • Start your own vegetable garden using organic seeds.
  • Choose lean meat cuts and remove any visible fat before cooking.
  • Choose wholegrain foods.
  • Choose products labelled “no hormones administered”.
  • Cook meats well, without burning or charring them.
  • Choose free range/organic meats that have not been treated with hormones.
  • Avoid processed foods as they often contain synthetic hormones.
  • Avoid the use of plastics, especially when heating and freezing food as these contain xenoestrogens.
  • Wash fruit and vegetables before eating them as some chemical sprays and fertilisers contain xenoestrogens.
  • Larger containers reduce the surface-to-volume ratio, which means less food comes into contact with the container. This also reduces the migration of chemicals in packaging to food.
 
* Above tips provided by Gauteng dietician Careen Geldenhuys
 
Did you know?
Hormone compounds are not just found in food, but are also present in water, soil, cosmetics, cleaning products and food packaging. 

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