The United States of Progesterone: What’s Really in Your Chicken Sandwich

GMO ChickensThe meat we eat is a mishmash of the political, practical, economic, and  spiritual. Our taboos about protein vary by geography, even by household. Some  eat pork, some don’t. Others serve camel as a delicacy – a tradition that would  make many Americans faint from the cultural shock. We draw the line on what we  put in our bodies in strange, often contradictory, places. Consumers decry the  hazards of processed meats in one breath while complaining about the high price  of fresh product with the next. Parents scream, “If only the good stuff was  affordable, then our children wouldn’t be comically obese!” Is that the  reason? Perhaps our perception of the ingredients inside the proteins we eat is  a symptom of conditioning, a kind of advertising voodoo. How would our opinions  change if we confronted the ingredients in the meats we eat? Would we care?

The Scandalous Evolution of Animal Protein

Americans consume 31 percent more processed foods than fresh food, according  to a 2010 article in the New York Times. We also ingest more processed meals  than just about any other industrialized nation. Japan eats a higher percentage  of ready-to-eat meals, the data suggests, though these products of choice tend  to be near-fresh items such as seafood or dried seaweed. On the whole, healthier  options than what U.S. residents choose to put in front of them.

Doctors agree that diets with high amounts of processed foods, which contain  large quantities of fat, salt, and sugar, lead to increased rates of heart  disease, diabetes, and obesity. Processed animal protein, including meat and  dairy, contributes the lion’s share of manufactured meals that Americans inhale  every day. We’re eating a combined 481 pounds-per-capita of this stuff every  year, according to the New York Times. We’re literally eating ourselves to  death.

Questions we should all be asking: what’s actually in these items? Should chicken breast bought in a supermarket really  have a list of ingredients?

The Tale of the Ballooning Poultry

As early as the 1930s, hormones assisted the food industry by increasing  production levels for food companies, according to the Sprecher Institute at Cornell University.

Photo Credit: Food, Inc.

Chicken farmers today raise poultry that grows to weigh twice as much as  similar birds in 1950, in less than half the time. Hormones, specifically the  synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES), administered to young poultry and  other animals allow them to gain more weight in less time. Shorter life cycles  from birth to the frozen food section lead to larger-scale production and higher  profits. Pharmaceutical companies even used synthetic estrogen in pills to help  menopausal women manage their symptoms.

Then scientists in the 1970s discovered a link between increased cancer risks  in those using DES. Food companies promptly phased the compound out of their  regular animal “treatment” regiments, but the damage was already done. The  processed food industry in the United States wasn’t about the stop its use of  synthetic compounds to stimulate growth and production. Today, the U.S. Food and  Drug Administration has given approval to six different hormones for use in food  production:  estradiol, progesterone, testosterone, zeranol, trenbolone  acetate, and melengestrol acetate. Two of those compounds – progesterone and  estradiol – are female sex hormones commonly found in prescription birth control  pills. What quantities of these chemicals are present in the processed food we  eat? According to the Sprecher Institute at Cornell University, there’s no way to measure levels of progesterone or  estradiol in animal products because scientists can’t tell the  administered portions from what the animal creates naturally. In an Italian  study, researchers discovered a link between steroid hormone residues in beef  and poultry with breast enlargement in young students – girls and boys.

If you’re  consuming mass-produced beef or poultry, chances are you’re consuming estrogen  and testosterone in high quantities. How much? The FDA has no idea.Photo Credit: Flickr

Hormones, like estrogen and testosterone, remain active in the body after  consumption, and can persist in food products post slaughter. Do we think it’s  actually safe to ingest compounds that make chickens grow to twice their natural  size and force cows to produce twice the amount of milk?

Frankenstein’s Monster in Your Grocer’s Freezer

Finding animal products, meat or otherwise, that haven’t suffered  manipulation in some way is harder than it sounds. Even foods baring the “natural” label can still have added estrogen and testosterone in them because  the compounds are not “synthetic,” according to Web MD. Furthermore, the United  States Department of Agriculture only regulates the labeling of items as natural  when it applies to beef and poultry. Food companies could label glow in the dark  fruit-like paste as natural and there’s really no way to prove otherwise because  the regulation is completely absent.

Frozen meals are  hot spots for processed foods with chemical preservatives and modified  ingredients. Photo Credit: Flickr

Genetic alteration of animals in our food supply is increasingly common.  Genetically modified organisms or GMOs have had their structures changed by  scientists to produce varying effects that food companies believe will be  beneficial to consumers.

  • In 2011, scientists in Argentina transformed the genes of dairy cows to  produce milk that mimics the makeup of human breast milk, according to the Daily  Telegraph.
  • Genetically-modified fish – salmon spliced with eel DNA – grow much faster  and larger than their naturally-born counterparts, says the Huffington Post. The  U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considered the first transgenic salmon  for approval for nationwide sale in 2013.
  • AquaBounty, a private fish developer responsible for the creation of the  first GMO salmon, estimates that the release of just 60 GMO salmon into a wild  population of 60,000 would cause the extinction of the wild population in less  than 40 generations.

Consumers can find GMOs in more than just cow’s milk and the seafood section.  At least 70 percent of processed food products in the United States have GMOs in  them; everything from soda to frozen waffles. How these compounds interact with  our bodies remains largely unknown. In the case of genetically altered salmon,  no long-term studies exist on the effects the consumption of so-called “Frankenfish” might have on us because its creation is so new. It is more  interesting or frightening that the FDA believes AquaBounty’s GMO salmon to be  safe despite the absence of this information?

Consumers wanting to buy non-GMO products can visit this website for a continually-updated list of items that do not  intentionally contain modified ingredients.

The Economics of Our Food

Eating healthy is often seen as a function of our privilege. Those with  higher incomes can afford to buy products raised in the wild that haven’t been  genetically manipulated to grow faster in shorter amounts of time. The rich can  absorb the cost of fresh produce, while the working poor have to buy frozen  meals with artificial ingredients.

Spam, the  ubiquitous canned meat sold in grocery stores around the world, has actually  fewer artificial ingredients than some fast food meats and other products.Photo  Credit: Flickr

Organic farming is also less efficient than conventional systems. According  to CNN Health, organic crops yield only 75 to 90 percent of the amount harvested  from fields using GMO products that resist disease or artificial pesticides.  This means more land is necessary to produce the same quantity, which leads to  higher costs.

Then there’s the higher price to consider at checkout. A study from  researchers at the University of California-Davis indicated that U.S. consumers  who consistently buy healthy foods spend 20 percent more on groceries than those  who do not. The higher price associated with these items, researchers say, can  gobble up 35 to 40 percent of the grocery budget for low-income families. Many  simply cannot afford to pay $4 a gallon for organic milk when there are cheaper  alternatives. Consumers commented to UC Davis researchers that price was a  barrier to purchasing organic products 70 percent of the time.

We want healthy food, but we don’t want to blow the entire budget in the  process. Because organic farms produce lower crop yields than others, there’s a  premium supply for those interested in buying them. Couple low supply with  increasing demands and it is basic economics to find the reason for the higher  price.

The Dirty Ingredients in Cheap Meats       

So we buy cheaper products, including meats, because we don’t want to hand  over the cash for the healthier, more natural options. Do we fully understand  what it means when we buy processed foods, including low-cost proteins in fast  food meals? Let’s take a look at some of the ingredients in the average  McDonald’s chicken nugget as reported by the International Human Press:

  • Tertiary Butyl Hydroquinone – dubbed TBHQ, this petroleum  derivative is a form of butane, the very same gas used in fuel blending for  gasoline and propane. McDonald’s sprays the compound onto its chicken nuggets as  a preservative, which the FDA claims is safe if used “sparingly.” Consuming one  gram of TBHQ can cause vomiting, delirium, and diarrhea. A five gram dose is  usually fatal.
  • Dimethylpolysiloxane – try saying that three times fast. An  anti-foaming agent, this chemical keeps nuggets from leaking…yes, leaking. It’s  a polymer of silicone, a suspected carcinogen, and was one of the main  ingredients in Silly Putty.
  • Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate – this buffering agent helps  maintain color in frozen foods, particularly potatoes and cured meats. It also  has applications in the leather working industry for its ability to remove hair  when incorporated into scalding water.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Ignoring the very real health implications of synthetic compounds in our food  supply has resulted in negative consequences across the board, from skyrocketing  cases of juvenile diabetes to a ridiculous rise in obesity rates in young people  as well as adults. If more people demand lower-cost, healthier alternatives to  affordable, yet potentially unsafe, genetically modified organisms, we can  compel real change in our national marketplace. Vote with dollars. Spend money  on products with short lists of ingredients that look like actual food and not a  college chemistry exam.

If we can’t pronounce it, we shouldn’t eat it.


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3 Comments on The United States of Progesterone: What’s Really in Your Chicken Sandwich

  1. I pay 8.50/gallon and I am happy to do so to support a grade A dairy, the first one certified in Texas and have the ability to get real raw milk.

  2. Science has actually proven that GMOs DO NOT increase crop yield and in many cases organics produce the same if not more crop yield. For another, I’d love to find a gallon of organic milk for $4. I pay anywhere from $5.99-$6.50 now.

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