In 1994, the FDA approved the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) on dairy farms. rBGH is the synthetic form of a hormone naturally produced in all animals to help them grow and develop. Not only does rBGH help cows grow bigger, faster, but it also increases milk production by 15-25%.
If growth hormones occur naturally, what’s the problem with giving cows more? According to multiple FDA-approved scientific studies, the growth hormones only cause cows (not their human consumers) to grow. Trace amounts of rBGH found in milk are broken down by our digestive systems and excreted just like… everything else. If it’s so safe, then why do many reporters and popular magazines label it as “a food that should never cross your lips”?
In the 1990’s, propelled by concerned parents and their new ability to forward emails, many people believed that rBGH caused premature puberty and breast development in both boys and girls. Most of these stories are actually urban legends, or the conditions were caused by other factors (like child obesity, complete nutritional diets, and other environmental factors).
Another common idea is that rBGH causes cancer. The greater hormone level may cause a spike in Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF), which may increase the risk of breast cancer seven times. Since rBGH causes an increase in milk production, dairy cows may develop mastitis, which is then treated with antibiotics. Trace amounts of both antibiotics and IGF have been found in some milk supplies and could have negative health effects on the people drinking it.
Currently, the FDA still stands behind using rBGH as a safe way to increase milk production. Because of the amount of controversy and contending scientific studies, they will continue testing and monitoring the American milk supply to determine the risks of consuming trace antibiotics and hormones. Unfortunately, that’s always a slow process; especially since milk recalls and relabeling would be a big blow to the dairy industry.
As consumers, it’s important to remember that many news reports and Internet articles talk about correlation between the use of hormones and their effects on the human body. However, a correlation between the two could just be a random coincidence. More studies must be done to provide hard evidence one way or the other.
The FDA’s current standing on the topic is that science supports rBGH as being safe for human consumption. If you don’t feel comfortable putting hormone-laced milk on your breakfast cereal, non-hormone dairy products do exist and are clearly advertised as being hormone-free with a sticker or label on the container. Just look for organic or rBGH/rBST-free dairy products. They are more expensive, but who knows? It may be worth it someday when we understand what those additives can do to our bodies.