Do Growth Hormones in Food Affect Children?

Many parents worry about the effect of non-organic foods on the health of their children. Eating meat from cows treated with growth hormone exposes you to chemicals that may affect your health. The Food and Drug Administration investigates all hormones used in food production to ensure they are safe, but concerned parents may opt for organic meat and dairy products to be sure. Talk to your child's pediatrician about growth hormones in beef and dairy products to determine whether they are safe for your child.

Growth Hormone Use

Most cattle farmers in the United States use growth hormones to increase a cow's size or milk production. The FDA allows farmers to use recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, to increase milk yield in dairy cattle. Farmers also use synthetic and natural growth hormones to promote rapid weight gain in cattle, increasing total meat volume when the cows are slaughtered. The FDA approves use of six different growth hormones for this purpose. These hormones enter the meat and milk, exposing children to potentially harmful chemicals.

Health Concerns

Consumer advocates worry that the pervasive use of growth hormones may cause health problems for children. Some parents believe that exposure to bovine growth hormones causes early puberty in young girls. Reaching puberty at a young age may increase your risk of cancer and other health problems. Another health concern is that children may develop milk allergies in response to the hormones found in dairy products.

FDA Position

The FDA approves use of several growth hormones to increase meat and milk production in cows and sheep. The administration periodically reviews scientific literature to assess the risk of growth hormone use in children. The FDA claims milk and meat from treated cows do not contain a dangerous amount of growth hormones that could pose a risk to children. The hormone rBGH is physiologically inactive in humans; thus, it cannot lead to precocious puberty in girls.

Scientific Evidence

Milk from rBGH-treated cows contains insulin-like growth factor, or IGF-1, a hormone that promotes growth. In a 2010 study published in "The Journal of Clinical Investigation," researcher Sara DiVall of Johns Hopkins University found that giving mice IGF-1 caused them to enter puberty earlier. However, a study conducted by Mansanto, a manufacturer of bovine growth hormones, found that milk from rBGH-treated cows did not have significantly higher IGF-1 levels than milk from non-treated cows. Andrea Wiley, a researcher at Indiana University, found that higher milk intake in young women is associated with early puberty, an association possibly caused by hormones in dairy products. In general, the scientific evidence is mixed as to whether growth hormones affect age of puberty and overall child health. More research is needed to determine whether products from cows treated with growth hormones affect child development.


The European Union does not allow use of rBGH or other growth hormones in dairy and meat production. The Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health determined that several growth hormones could increase cancer risk or cause other health problems. Although the FDA does not corroborate these findings, concerned parents may choose hormone-free alternatives. Non-rBGH milk and organic meat products come from cows that remain untreated with growth hormones.