Currently the FDA allows the use of five hormones in cattle for meat production: progesterone, testosterone, estradiol-17β, zeranol, and trenbolone acetate.
The first three are natural hormones, the same as produced by an intact animal. Zeranol occurs naturally also, produced by fungi. It acts as a non-steroidal estrogen agonist, meaning it acts like estrogen. Trenbolone acts as an androgenic steroid that promotes muscle growth.
“Estradiol levels in edible tissues of implanted cattle are usually significantly higher than in controls but the increases are small, in the ng/kg range. The greatest increases reported in an FAO report on estradiol residues were 0.002, 0.0065, 0.005, and 0.0084 mg/kg for implanted bulls, steers, heifers, and calves, respectively. These increases are well below the FDA recommended limits listed in the table on p. 2 and well below estradiol concentrations in muscles of pregnant heifers (0.016 to 0.033 mg/kg).”
“Meat does not play a dominant role in the daily intake of steroid hormones. Meat, meat products and fish contribute to the hormone supply according to their proportion in human nutrition (average about one quarter). The main source of estrogens and progesterone are milk products (60-80%). Eggs and vegetable food contribute in the same order of magnitude to the hormone supply as meat does.”
“These values [amounts provided by diet] are far exceeded by the human steroid production (Table 10). Children, who show the lowest production of steroid hormones, produce about 20 times the amount of progesterone and about 1000 times the amount of testosterone and estrogens that are ingested with food on average per day. It has further to be taken into consideration that about 90% of the ingested hormones are inactivated by the first-pass-effect of the liver. This leads to the conclusion that no hormonal effects, and as a consequence no tumor promoting effects, can be expected from naturally occurring steroids in food.”
Cornell University has a website discussing these Consumer Concerns About Hormones in Foods:
Can steroid hormones in meat affect the age of puberty for girls?
Early puberty in girls has been found to be associated with a higher risk for breast cancer. Height, weight, diet, exercise, and family history have all been found to influence age of puberty (see BCERF Fact Sheet #08, Childhood Life Events and the Risk of Breast Cancer). Steroid hormones in food were suspected to cause early puberty in girls in some reports. However, exposure to higher than natural levels of steroid hormones through hormone-treated meat or poultry has never been documented. Large epidemiological studies have not been done to see whether or not early puberty in developing girls is associated with having eaten growth hormone-treated foods.
A concern about an increase in cases of girls reaching puberty or menarche early (at age eight or younger) in Puerto Rico, led to an investigation in the early 1980s by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Samples of meat and chicken from Puerto Rico were tested for steroid hormone residues. One laboratory found a chicken sample from a local market to have higher than normal level of estrogen. Also, residues of zeranol were reported in the blood of some of the girls who had reached puberty early. However, these results could not be verified by other laboratories. Following CDC's investigation, USDA tested 150 to 200 beef, poultry and milk samples from Puerto Rico in 1985, and found no residues of DES, zeranol or estrogen in these samples.
In another study in Italy, steroid hormone residues in beef and poultry in school meals were suspected as the cause of breast enlargement in very young girls and boys. However, the suspect beef and poultry samples were not available to test for the presence of hormones. Without proof that exposure to higher levels of steroid hormones occurred through food, it is not possible to conclude whether or not eating hormone-treated meat or poultry caused the breast enlargement in these cases.
Can eating meat from hormone-treated animals affect breast cancer risk?
Evidence does not exist to answer this question. The amount of steroid hormone that is eaten through meat of a treated animal is negligible compared to what the human body produces each day. The breast cancer risk of women who eat meat from hormone-treated animals has not been compared with the risk of women who eat meat from untreated animals.
Similarly, we don't have any studies of comparing the prostate cancer risk of men who eat meat from hormone-treated animals to men who eat meat from untreated animals.
In Hyperinsulinemic Diseases of Civilization: More Than Just Syndrome X, Cordain, Eades, and Eades  point out that current evidence actually implicates high carbohydrate intake as the promoter of these hormone-related disorders, because high carbohydrate intake raises insulin levels which increases levels of insulin-like growth factors and increases endogenous production of steroids, by far the main source of steroid exposure, while reducing sex hormone-binding globulins that reduce steroid activity. In the abstract they summarize:
Specifically, hyperinsulinemia elevates serum concentrations of free insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) and androgens, while simultaneously reducing insulin-like growth factor-binding protein 3 (IGFBP-3) and sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG). Since IGFBP-3 is a ligand for the nuclear retinoid X receptor a, insulin-mediated reductions in IGFBP-3 may also influence transcription of anti-proliferative genes normally activated by the body’s endogenous retinoids. These endocrine shifts alter cellular proliferation and growth in a variety of tissues, the clinical course of which may promote acne, early menarche, certain epithelial cell carcinomas, increased stature, myopia, cutaneous papillomas (skin tags), acanthosis nigricans, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and male vertex balding. Consequently, these illnesses and conditions may, in part, have hyperinsulinemia at their root cause and therefore should be classified among the diseases of Syndrome X. [Italics added]
Using the paleo principle to evaluate this claim, we should expect ill effects of hormones in meat to appear in heavy meat-eating hunter-gatherer groups since they ate meat from intact animals, particularly bulls having 10 times as much testosterone as domesticated animals.
But before you get meat from hormone-treated animals, check to see if you can find a supplier for meats from animals raised on typical feeds (corn, soy, etc.) but without added hormones. In Phoenix, we have at least two markets--Sprouts and Sunflower--that supply meat that comes from such animals. These markets sell their meats at prices comparable and sometimes lower than what I see at more conventional supermarkets where the meat comes from hormone-treated animals.
We will look at antibiotics and other issues in upcoming posts.
Thanks to Matt Schoeneberger, co-author of S.P.E.E.D. Weight Loss Book, for help accessing one of the articles I used as a reference for this article.
4. Cordain L, Eades M, Eades M. Hyerinsulinemic diseases of civilization: More than just syndrome X. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A 136 (2003) 95–112. PDF available here.