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Who put the hormones in my cabbage — and every other living thing we eat?

Who put the hormones in my cabbage — and every other living thing we eat?

Ruskamp family meal

Eating together is nourishing to the body and the spirit for the Ruskamp family. Beef is consistently on the menu.

A few years ago I used M&M’s in mason jars to illustrate the levels of the hormone estrogen in cabbage, peas, potatoes and beef.

The jar representing a 3-ounce serving of cabbage was filled with M&M’s while the jar representing a 3-ounce serving of beef held less than one candy piece.

estrogen found in different foods we eat

The label “hormone free” has created unnecessary fear and a lot of misunderstanding, says CommonGround volunteer and family farmer Joan Ruskamp.

Light bulbs went on as my audience connected the dots:

  • “Who put the hormones in my cabbage?”
  • “I thought for sure the full jar was going to be one with the beef label!”
  • “Oh, yeah, I remember learning about hormones in biology class. How do they work again?”

Thirty-seven years of farming with my husband Steve have given me the opportunity to learn the terminology, utilize the science-based research and understand the newer technologies farmers are using — such as added hormones in beef cattle.

My M&M’s illustration has sparked hundreds of conversations as farmers and ranchers like me volunteer with the nonprofit CommonGround Nebraska to help consumers understand the science behind using added hormones. The foundation of the conversation is based on science but our engagement is based on values farmers and consumers share like honesty and transparency.

Concerns about how food is grown and the increased use of food labels “free of this” or “no added that” make grocery trips more stressful than they should be. The label “hormone free” has created unnecessary fear and a lot of misunderstanding. Here’s why.

Hormones naturally occur in all living things. Dr. Terry Etherton, distinguished professor from Penn State University, explains in his blog ”Hormones, Hormones, Hormones”:

“A hormone is a substance that sets in motion a set of metabolic events that would otherwise lie dormant. All of the hormones together form a communication network in the body that is called the endocrine system. Another way of viewing the endocrine system is to imagine at any given moment the circulatory system (the blood) of animals and humans is literally packed with thousands of these chemical messengers moving about the body sort of like an urban freeway on a late Friday afternoon.”

Dr. Etherton continues: “Hormones act as ‘messengers,’ and are carried by the bloodstream to different cells in the body, which interpret these messages and act on them. Without hormones and the endocrine system, humans and animals would not survive.”

Hormones are not limited to humans and animals. Plants have an estrogen-like compound called phytoestrogens. As explained in an article from Tulane University: “In general, phytoestrogens are weaker than the natural estrogen hormones (such as estradiol) found in humans and animals or the very potent synthetic estrogens used in birth-control pills and other drugs.”

Plants have additional hormones that are responsible for all sorts of functions like helping the plants sense light, forming lateral roots and triggering flower development and germination, just to name a few.

Healthy soil makes healthy plants makes healthy animals and healthy humans. Farming is all about making decisions for the good of the entire cycle of life.

Hormones naturally exist. They have an important purpose. Understanding the role they play in our human development and the foods we eat can help us understand why farmers would use an added hormone for beef production. In our feedlot, we use an added hormone on the steers because it helps them  convert feed to protein more efficiently; it’s safe for the animal and human consumption; and it’s safe for the environment.

The safety of consuming beef with added hormones has to remain front and center of our discussion. Dr. Jude Capper explains in her blog post about hormones:

“Yes, an 8-oz steak from a steer given a hormone implant contains more estrogen than a steak from a non-implanted animal; 42% more estrogen in fact. That’s undeniable. Yet the amount of estrogen in the steak from the implanted animal is minuscule: 5.1 nanograms. One nanogram (one-billionth of a gram or one-25-billionth of an ounce) is roughly equivalent to one blade of grass.

By contrast, one birth-control pill, taken daily by more than 100 million women worldwide, contains 35,000 nanograms of estrogen. That’s equivalent to eating 3,431 pounds of beef from a hormone-implanted animal daily. To put it another way: it’s the annual beef consumption of 59 adults.

Are there hormones in your cabbage? Yes, and there are hormones in every living thing we eat. Our ability to help cattle convert grass and grain to protein using less resources while producing a wholesome, tasty food is dependent on science-based research.

Beef producers count on quality research to help us continually seek ways to improve our impact on the environment while maintaining the highest levels of care for our animals and the safety of the beef we produce.

Understanding how hormones work has helped farmers partner with nature to produce healthy, sustainable food. When you serve beef to your family you can be confident they are receiving 10 essential nutrients to help them thrive. Beef does give you zip!

Eating together is nourishing to the body and the spirit for our family. Beef is the center of the plate for most of our meals. From Santa Barbara to Chicago and several places in between, our children and their families all choose to include beef for dinner whenever they can. Find beef recipes to fit your lifestyle and family needs at

The author is a volunteer with Common Ground Nebraska, a grassroots organization made up of family farmers who help consumers understand where their food comes from as well as the science behind it. 

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