Hormones in Milk: They Do a Body Good

Today’s Washington Post Food section contains a number of articles following up on the Post’s “The Future of Food” conference that I wrote about last week. There’s enough misinformation and uninformed opinion there to keep a food policy scholar like myself busy for a week. But one item that’s really gotten my panties in a bunch is the repetition of a pet peeve of mine, which is featured in a quote from Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg:

“I have yet to meet the consumer who says, ‘I want the milk with more synthetic hormones, please.’”

I assume that Hirshberg is referring to the use of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) to boost milk production in cows, but the language he and other opponents use to turn consumers against a pretty darn good technology is so misleading that it often makes me assume they’re being intentionally deceitful.

Leave aside, for a moment, that rbST is administered to the cows, not put into the milk, and that there is no detectable rbST in the milk itself. And never mind that milk is loaded with plenty of the cow’s own natural hormones, including endogenous somatotropin. The most egregious problem with Hirshberg’s claim is that Stoneyfield Farms actually adds synthetic hormones to its own dairy products, and they advertise that fact right on the cartons, as well as on the company website — presumably in the belief that consumers will find their presence in Stoneyfield Farms milk a feature, not a bug.

You see, practically every carton of fluid milk sold in the United States is fortified with vitamin D3. Stoneyfield Farms calls it “The wonder vitamin”. But what Hirshfield and his fellow travelers are apparently counting on is the fact that most people don’t realize that Vitamin D is a hormone (and a steroid to boot).  And where does the hormone that the dairy industry adds to its milk come from? Why, it’s synthesized in a laboratory, of course.  I’ll let University of California, Riverside biochemistry professor Anthony W. Norman explain:

The commercial production of vitamin D3 is completely dependent on the availability of either 7-dehydrocholesterol or cholesterol. 7-Dehydrocholesterol can be obtained via organic solvent extraction of animal skins (cow, pig or sheep) followed by an extensive purification. Cholesterol typically is extracted from the lanolin of sheep wool and after thorough purification and crystallization can be converted via a laborious chemical synthesis into 7-dehydrocholesterol. It should be appreciated that once chemically pure, crystalline 7-dehydrocholesterol has been obtained, it is impossible to use any chemical or biological tests or procedures to determine the original source (sheep lanolin, pig skin, cow skin, etc.) of the cholesterol or 7-dehydrocholesterol. Next the crystalline 7-dehydrocholesterol is dissolved in an organic solvent and irradiated with ultraviolet light to carry out the transformation (similar to that which occurs in human and animal skin) to produce vitamin D3.

This vitamin D3 is then purified and crystallized further before it is formulated for use in dairy milk and animal feed supplementation. The exact details of the chemical conversion of cholesterol to 7-dehydrocholesterol and the method of large-scale ultraviolet light conversion into vitamin D3 and subsequent purification are closely held topics for which there have been many patents issued (2). The major producers of vitamin D3 used for milk and other food supplementation are the companies F. Hoffman La Roche, Ltd (Switzerland) and BASF (Germany).

So yes, Gary, consumers really do want the milk with the added synthetic hormones. They might not realize it.  And YOU might be able to scare them into spending more for your product under the false assumption that it doesn’t contain synthetic hormones. But the added hormones are there for a reason. They’re safe.  They’re effective.  And they do a body good.