April 9th, 2008
09:49 AM ET

Got milk? Got hormones? Got a problem with that?

Milk is back in the news, thanks to Wal-Mart. The giant retailer recently announced that milk sold under its store brand will now come exclusively from cows free of artificial growth hormones, which some farmers use to boost milk production. Wal-Mart says its new policy was driven by customer demand. (Kroger, Safeway, Publix and Starbucks have already made the same switch.) So what’s driving demand? Possibly, articles like this one, which made the rounds here at CNN. The person who spotted the piece described it as a great story “on how hormones in milk are causing girls to reach puberty years ahead of time.”

When I checked it out, however, I found just one problem: so far, that conclusion isn’t supported by decades of scientific studies. Researchers have not been able to definitively link hormones in milk and harm to humans, including early puberty in young girls. The writer of the article actually points that out. But she also writes: “there’s tons of speculation. Common sense should tell you that excess exposure to artificial hormones cannot be good for you.” She then advises readers to avoid milk with added hormones, even if it costs more. When I called her, she elaborated: “I just know a lot of times when you’re using something like a medication or an additive, years down the road you find that it’s associated with something terrible.” She also told me she has a pre-teen daughter and would rather be safe than sorry.

Time for a quick confession: I’m a slavish consumer of pricey organic milk, even though my husband (a science/medical journalist and non-practicing medical doctor) rolls his eyes every time I bring a half gallon home. Full disclosure: He wrote about the milk safety debate last year in The Scientist, so I’m probably more familiar than the average reader with arguments that milk with hormones is just fine.  But even so, when it comes to shopping for milk, my emotions, not cool rationality, drive my choices – and I’ll bet I’m not unusual. I’m drawn to the “err on the side of safety” argument; no one but my wallet gets hurt. But I also have enough experience in health/medical reporting to understand that “tons of speculation” and “common sense” don’t hold water in scientific circles - or in journalism, for that matter. Facts and evidence are required.

Sometimes they surprise: It turns out that buying organic doesn’t mean you’re getting hormone-free milk. To qualify as organic, milk producers must certify that their cows haven’t been treated with synthetic growth hormones. Key word: synthetic. According to Gary Rogers, a professor of animal science at the University of Tennessee, all milk – even organic – contains low levels of hormones that occur naturally in cows – including the natural version of the growth hormone that boosts milk production. It’s produced in cows’ pituitary glands. According to Rogers, who works with dairy farmers, organic milk and conventionally produced milk look identical when analyzed in the lab. “Milk from cows given hormones cannot be distinguished from milk from untreated cows,” he told me, because the hormone levels are about the same. The FDA agrees.  Some skeptics argue that the tools used to measure milk-boosting hormone levels aren’t sensitive enough; Rogers describes the technology as sophisticated.

It also turns out that milk-boosting hormones given to cows are mostly destroyed when their milk is pasteurized. According to Craig Baumrucker, professor of animal nutrition/physiology at Penn State University, pasteurization breaks down 90 percent of the growth hormone. He also points out that our stomach acids and intestinal secretions also break down these types of hormones.

Milk also contains traces of the reproductive hormones estradiol, testosterone, and something called IGF-1. There’s some evidence that IGF-1 may raise the risk of certain kinds of prostate cancer. But Rogers and others point out that the amounts of these hormones in milk are a small fraction of what our bodies produce every day. (Pre-pubertal girls and boys and pregnant women produce the most.) One estimate says a person would have to drink 95 quarts of milk to equal the amount of IGF-1 we make daily in our saliva and digestive tract secretions.  What’s more, said Baumrucker (who received funding unrelated to milk hormones from Monsanto in the 1980s) says birth control pills contain far greater levels of estrogen than milk. He believes hormones in milk have been a target of the biotechnology backlash.  He also points out that organic labels bring higher profits to producers with “claims of better health” for the public. Translation: Organic companies may have an interest in playing on our fears.

Frankly, the backlash against artificial hormones in milk doesn’t surprise me. Every day it seems, we hear reports that make us question the safety of the food we eat and water we drink. The federal agencies tasked with keeping us safe have failed enough times to shake public confidence. As a journalist, it’s my job to be skeptical – of everyone – until the facts become as clear as possible. If something sounds scary, maybe there’s a good reason. It’s also possible someone has good reason to keep you scared. And maybe the truth lies somewhere in between.

In Rogers’ view, labels that say “no hormones added” send a misleading message. “These labels imply that other milk has hormones and theirs doesn’t,” Rogers says. In an email, Baumrucker put it more bluntly: “This is clearly a false advertising statement,” he wrote. “There are hormones in natural milk.” Both professors, and many others in science, believe that milk is safe, period. “It’s not appropriate to say one milk is healthier than another,” Rogers says. “That’s going beyond what the data can support.”
Meantime, there’s a half gallon of milk sitting in my refrigerator stamped with the reassuring words: "Produced without the use of antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones or toxic or persistent pesticides and fertilizers." And, yes, my husband’s eyes are rolling. What about yours?

– Cate Vojdik, 360° Writer


Check out Dr. Sanjay Gupta's blog on hormones in milk here 
Comments to the 360° blog are moderated. What does that mean?


Filed under: Hormones • Milk • Organic Products
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Denise Richter

    I too am a dairy farmer, and a wife, and a mother. What the other dairy farmers are saying is true, MILK IS MILK. Even the author, Cate, writes that there is no test available that can determine which milk is produced with the use of the supplement and which milk is produced without the use of the supplement. So one has to ask, "How do you know you are really getting what your are paying for? Is this just a slick marketing ploy to separate you from your money?"

    As for the "warm & fuzzy" feeling you have buying organic, did you know that organically produced milk actually makes a much larger carbon print than milk produced with the use of rbST?

    For every one million cows injected with rbST, the POSITIVE impact on the environment is:

    Water – Saves 6.6 billion gallons of water every year

    Feed – Reduces the amount of animal feed needed by over 3 billion pounds per year

    Land – Decreases the land area required for raising cows and growing feed by over 417 square miles

    Fuel – Saves more than 5.5 million gallons of gas and diesel fuel every year

    Air – Lowers greenhouse gas emissions by 30,000 metric tons per year

    Manure – Reduces the manure generated by approximately 3.6 million tons every year

    So please, relax! Don't let those "scare mongers" separate you from any more of your money Let them know that you won't be intimidated by their scare tactics!

    April 14, 2008 at 8:03 pm |
  2. carrie smith

    Walmart doesn't regulate the trans fat laden fast food from McDonalds which is contained within their stores what makes us think that their main concern is the health and well being of the people that purchase and consume the products sold there within?

    The huge corporations supplying Walmart with products make huge profits on people that are not informed on what they are ingesting and whether it is altering their health or not since they are completely protected by their enormous wealth and power. They cause confusion and say that certain items and/or additives,chemicals or genetically moditfied ingredients in foods are not linked to cancer, thyroid disorders, ADD, etc, yet if a smart customer would ban these ingredients from their diet, they may experience improvement (if the damage IS even reversible.)

    It's sad and scary that our foods have become science experiments and consumers the paying guinea-pigs.

    April 11, 2008 at 10:45 pm |
  3. Bill

    I'm a dairyfarmer from Minnesota. First of all I want to say that Milk is Milk. It's all safe.

    All milk has to pass the same test for antibiotics and pesticides several times before it reaches the grocery store. These tests are so sensitive that they can detect one drop of penicillin in 40,000 gallons of milk.

    The reason Wal Mart and others have gone rBST free is not consumer demand. The main reason they went rBST free is what their in business for and that is to make money.

    The latest price survey do by the American Farm Bureau found that the average markup on a gallon of rBST free milk is 90 cents or on a 100 cwt. wieght basis, (I get paid for my milk by the cwt. ) is $22.50 higher than commercial milk. The dairyfarmers that produce rBST free milk are receiving an average premium of 50 cents per cwt. About 5% of the remaining $22.00 goes to handling cost. The retailer is making $20.10 more per cwt. of rBST free milk than they are on conventional milk.

    I don't care how much money Wal Mart and others make. THey are in business to provide a service and to make money. Many businesses are jumping on the sustainable/green ban wagon and that can be good. But to play on peoples fears and charge more?

    I hope Anderson Cooper will asked Wal Mart and others why they see it necessary mark up rBST free milk as high as they do when their costs of rBST free milk is similar to conventional milk. As a dairyfarmer
    I think its information the consuming pupilic needs to know.


    April 10, 2008 at 12:17 pm |
  4. Genevieve M, TX

    I think there is some truth about milk causing early puberty in children.

    Puberty generally starts sometime around the age of ten, but I remember a classmate in 3rd grade (age 7-8) starting her menses that year. At the time, I thought she had "paint on her pants" as did most of my classmates. Anyway, I did not enter puberty till age 15 and menarche did not happen till age 17, almost 18 (sorry if that is overshare).

    My doctor (pediatrician) said that my diet played a major role in delayed puberty, more so than genetics. In my case, I stopped regularly consuming milk at age 3. I did occasionally eat ice cream, cheese, and some meals involved the use of diary products such as sour cream in its preparation. I also had minimal meat, but plenty of vegetables, fruits, and alternate protein to replace meat. The fact I consumed little to no meat and dairy means that I was exposed to only very small amounts of animal hormones.

    So yes, I believe allowing growing children to consume too many animal products can alter their growth and development.

    April 9, 2008 at 9:28 pm |
  5. brittany, parker colorado

    Just another reason to drink soy (-;

    April 9, 2008 at 6:33 pm |
  6. Sean

    I have been of a mind that the hormones in our food and milk were not a good thing for a long time. This just shows you that we should not always trust the farms or the government. Our food has been played around with way to much and could be the cause of a lot of the problems we now face, ie cancer, autism, etc. etc. maybe we should go back to growing our own food.

    April 9, 2008 at 11:01 am |
  7. Renee

    Yes, it is expensive but we love it and I only buy organic milk! It makes you feel like buy a gallon of gas is cheap!

    April 9, 2008 at 10:29 am |
  8. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    I'm with you. I buy organic foods whenever I can erring on the safe side (I figure why tempt Fate if I don't have to). Did Wal-Mart bother to say that their organic products are priced ridiculously high (what pitiful few they have-Do Newman's Own fig cookies count)? Of course, I boycotted Hell Mart, so their merchandise doesn't matter anymore. My grandpa was a sugar cane farmer and died from colon cancer caused by the pesticides sprayed every year on his crops. I have seen firsthand what farming chemicals can do to a person. So I'll take my chances on organic, pay a little more, and hopefully live longer after it's all said and done.

    April 9, 2008 at 10:05 am |