Last week, while I was attending the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s 2012 Antibiotic Symposium in Columbus, Ohio, I joined some of the other attendees for a lovely dinner at a high-end steakhouse.

When the server came out with a beautiful platter of plastic-wrapped pieces of steak to show us our choices, she started to describe the beef that the restaurant used.

She was doing great until the end when she declared: “All of our beef is hormone-free.” We all gave sort of a collective sigh with some head-shaking – here we go again. Do we pick this battle and try to educate this server? I’m sure you can imagine that a group of seven who represented the beef industry in various forms was not going to let this one pass. And we didn’t.

We informed the server that all beef contains hormones, naturally-occurring or otherwise. To which she said, “Well these cows are fed hormones early on but by the time they are done they are all gone.” Obviously, she had hormones confused with antibiotic residues. 

We tried to explain that wasn’t right, at which point she just gave up and said, “I don’t know. That’s what they told us to say.” We let her off the hook as it was apparent she was only spouting the information that someone else who probably didn’t know what they were talking about told her (and the other servers) to say.

It’s just too bad that when you are paying a lot for a really nice steak that the owners/managers/chefs either don’t take the time to have adequate knowledge about it, or if they do, they neglect to pass on the correct information to the people who are actually interfacing with customers.

To that end, I want to refresh and share some information on hormones/steroid levels in beef cattle and other foods. And please, be kind to your servers in these situations – a little education can go a long way. And as a side note, the steak was delicious.

How much estrogen is in it?
Consumers are taking a heightened interest in what is in their food. Unfortunately, beef often gets a bad rap and erroneous information about the levels of estrogen hormones in beef is often put out.

But here are the real facts. Many other foods contain much higher levels of estrogen than does beef from cattle that have or haven’t received an implant. In a great blog by Susan Dopart,MS, RD, CDE, she notes that a cup of soy milk has 30,000 nanograms of estrogen, and a 3.5 oz serving of soy protein isolate found in soy powders and bar has 102,000 nanograms, compared to the 1.9 nanograms found in the beef of a hormone-implanted steer.

Product           Amount of Estrogen

  • Soybean oil  168,000 ng*
  • Wheat germ     3,400 ng
  • Cabbage           2,000 ng
  • Ice cream             520 ng
  • Peas                     340 ng
  • Potatoes               225 ng
  • Milk                          11 ng
  • Beef/treated steer    1.9 ng
  • Beef/untreated steer 1.3 ng

Naturally-occurring estrogen in people

  • Non-pregnant adult woman     86,000–513,000 ng*
  • Pregnant adult woman             65–120 million ng
  • Adult man                                  100,000–136,000 ng
  • Female child (prior to puberty) 54,000 ng

*Nanogram (ng)=one billionth of a gram
Sources: Hoffman and Evers (1986); Scanga et al. (2004); FSIS-USDA (1994)

More resources

  • For more information and talking points about beef and beef production, click here.
  • You can also visit the Sustainable Beef Resource Center here.
  • Read Susan Dopart’s blog about what she and other dieticians learned about beef on a trip to Kansas City.