Money's tight. And as a recession looms, it's getting tighter. So should you spend your hard-earned money — sometimes more than double the price —to buy hormone-free milk?
More and more Americans are saying "yes." Bowing to consumer pressure, last month Wal-Mart announced that its store brand milk will now come exclusively from cows free from artificial hormones.
The giant chain retailer — not exactly a bastion of progressive thinking — is part of fast-growing movement against the use of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), a hormone given to cows to up their production of milk. Kroger, with 2,500 stores in the U.S., recently began selling only hormone-free milk. Safeway, with more than 1,700 stores, has switched its in-store brands to non-rBST milk, and Starbucks has used only non-rBST milk since January. Some in the industry speculate that in the near future the U.S. will join Canada and the European Union and ban the hormone in all dairy products.
In response, Monsanto, the maker of the hormone, has fought back by focusing on milk labeling. The company and others believe that even if stores choose to sell hormone-free milk, that it shouldn't be labeled as such. In some states, the size of the label is up for debate. As nit-picky as this industry inside-baseball sounds, there is plenty at stake for dairy farmers: Cows injected with rBST produce about a gallon of milk more per day than hormone-free cows, which can add up to lots and lots of milk money.
In the meantime, what should you do? The Food and Drug Administration hasn't banned rBST. So what's the big deal?
Plenty, perhaps, but no one's sure. No scientific studies have found a definitive link between the hormones in milk and adverse health effects. But there's tons of speculation. Common sense should tell you that excess exposure to artificial hormones cannot be good for you.
The connection between hormones and health is scariest in girls. Many parents worry that girls may be growing up way too fast, at least partly due to the food supply. A decade ago, a controversial survey of 17,000 girls found that by the age of 8, 15 percent of the white girls and 48 percent of the African American girls had some breast development, pubic hair or both. In contrast, textbooks say that just 1 percent of girls younger than 8 should show these signs of puberty.
The study also found that 7 percent of the white girls and 27 percent of the African American girls had begun puberty by the age of 7. And 1 percent of the whites and 3 percent of the African Americans had some pubic hair or breast growth as early as the age of 3. Other studies have shown that the age at which girls begin menstruating, particularly African American girls, has declined sharply since the 1970s.
These findings, particularly those from the 1997 survey, have been widely debated, largely over the methodology of the research. But even as the scientists bicker, it should be screamingly obvious to mothers and everyone else that something is going on. Put aside the influence of hip-hop music and Rihanna's latest itty-bitty outfit, and it's still clear that girls are developing faster and looking older than back in the day.
But is it due to the hormones in milk? That link isn't clear at all. Precocious puberty, as it's called, may have more to do with weight than milk. The number of overweight children and teens has grown dramatically over the last two decades, particularly among African American girls. And early menstruation—before age 12—is most common among girls who are overweight. So if 25 percent of African American girls are now overweight, then it makes sense that more of them are developing breasts and starting their periods earlier.
But still! Until we know more about hormones and the effect on our health, and particularly the health of growing girls, it's best to stay away from them whenever possible. Exposure to hormones—though not the ones in milk per se—is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. That's why droves of women over 50 have given up hormone replacement therapy. And hormones also fuel the growth of fibroids, which have reached near epidemic proportions, especially in black women.
Until dairy farmers, manufacturers, food chains and the federal government work together to rid our milk supply of hormones like rBST, why expose yourself and your children to excess hormones?
Also, understand there's a distinction between plain milk, milk that contains no rBST, and organic milk —in both the product and the cost. In the grocery store closest to my house, I only have two options: plain or organic, $4.79 a half gallon versus $1.98.
Organic milk is much more expensive, because, according to government standards, it must come from cows that meet four criteria:
—Cannot have been treated with rBST.
—Cannot have been given antibiotics while in a herd. (If a cow is that sick, she must be separated from the group and treated.)
— Must be fed grass or feed that has not been treated with pesticides or grown from genetically modified seeds
— Must be allowed "access to pasture;" in other words, they can graze without being confined in feed lots.
If you're like most people, you're probably thinking, I understand the first three rules, but what does that fourth one have to do with me? Isn't that more about cows than kids?
In the grocery store several more blocks away, along with regular and organic milk, I also have the option of milk from Farmland Dairies. It's not organic but is free of hormones and antibiotics. It's like what's sold at Wal-Mart, Kroger's and served at Starbucks—and it costs $1.98, the same as plain old milk. The labeling distinction used by Farmland Daries is exactly the kind conventional dairy farmers and Monsanto are fighting. But if you can find it, this option saves both money and worry.
The bottom line about milk is, shop smart and, even if you have to pay more, avoid excess hormones. In the long run, it'll be worth it for both you and your family.
Linda Villarosa is a health columnist for The Root. "Passing for Black" is her first novel. For more go to her Web site.