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Safer Food For a Healthier You

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WebMD Feature provided in collaboration with Healthy Child Healthy World

Pesticides in produce, hormones in milk, antibiotics in meat -- what are all these extra ingredients doing in our food?

Improved testing methods now allow researchers to detect and monitor a strange brew of unpleasant chemicals in our food and bodies. Although the amounts are small and there’s controversy about whether or not they’re harmful, their presence alone is disturbing to many --especially parents of small children.

“Modern production of foods incorporates a wide range of synthetic chemicals,” says Jeff Gillman, PhD, associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota and author of The Truth About Organic Gardening. “Many of these chemicals have the potential to be very damaging to humans if they are exposed to high concentrations, or to low concentrations over an extended period of time.” 

“More people are realizing there’s a myriad of chemicals in conventionally produced food,” says Craig Minowa, environmental scientist with the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit advocacy group. Although each has passed its own safety review, Minowa points out that “most of the studies on safety are done or supported by the companies themselves.”

So what are the health effects of these unwanted ingredients?

Pickles, Lettuce, Mayo … Hold the Estrogen

Injecting hormones into young livestock can make them gain weight faster. More weight means more meat, which means more profit for the producer. Hormones also increase the production of milk by dairy cows.

Hormones have been used for decades in the meat and dairy industries. Synthetic estrogens and testosterone are the most common. Typically, farmers implant a pellet in a cow’s ear at an early age; it releases hormones throughout the animal’s life.

Initial concerns about estrogen-injected cows centered on a compound called diethylstilbestrol (DES). Nearly all beef cattle were treated with DES in the 1950s and 1960s. DES was also used as medicine, given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages.

However, it was also discovered that DES caused a higher risk of vaginal cancer in the daughters of women who received the medicine. By the 1970s, over the protests of ranchers, diethylstilbestrol was phased out from use in medicine and agriculture.

It’s also long been known that breast cancer risk increases with higher lifetime exposure to estrogen. These facts have led many to question whether the continued use of synthetic estrogens in livestock is safe.

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is a different class of hormone that increases the amount of milk dairy cows produce. Some suggest that although rBGH itself appears safe, it increases the amount of other chemicals in the body that might cause cancer. So far, there’s no definitive proof one way or the other.

How much hormone is in a hamburger, and could it hurt you? The answer is, no one really knows. Studies show the added hormones do show up in beef and milk, pushing their estrogen and testosterone content to the high end of normal for cows. Whether that translates to increased risk for humans is the question.

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