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What is BGH?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) is a naturally occurring hormone secreted by the pituitary glands of cattle. You may also hear BGH referred to as “Bovine Somatotropin,” or BST. This hormone enters the bloodstream and regulates the rate of growth and milk production for the cow. As early as the 1930s, people noted that when BGH levels were increased in cattle by harvesting the hormone from cow cadavers, milk production increased as well, and several firms because interested in using BGH to boost milk production.

In the 1980s, the Monsanto Company figured out how to produce BGH synthetically, by genetically altering bacteria so that they would produce the hormone. This process is known as “recombinant DNA,” reflecting the idea that the DNA of the host bacteria has been altered for a specific end purpose. The result was rBGH, a synthetic form of BGH which was easy to produce on a large scale, and it was approved for use in the United States in the early 1990s.

Cows treated with rBGH do indeed produce more milk, sometimes as much as 25% more, but the hormone is very hard on their bodies. Increased BGH levels lead to calcium deficiency in the bone and a variety of other health problems. Because BGH can be used to force cows to produce milk year-round, whether or not they calve, the hormone also pushes the body to produce abnormally high levels of milk which can lead to early degeneration. Cows treated with BGH typically have short lives, and they are prone to mastitis, an infection of the udder, along with joint pain, and broken bones. The use of BGH is often reserved for the last few milking cycles before slaughter.

Some concerns have been raised about the impact of BGH on human health. Studies conducted on the hormone seem to indicate that it is species-specific, meaning that even if the hormone or its byproducts do end up in milk, this shouldn't affect human consumers. The United States Food and Drug Administration says that rBGH milk is identical to milk produced without the use of the hormone.

However, some people and regulatory agencies disagree. The European Union has banned the use of BGH in its cattle, and some consumers actively seek out milk which has been labeled as rBGH or rBST free. Commercial dairy producers and Monsanto have tried to fight such labels, arguing that they prejudice consumers, and they have been defeated numerous times in court.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon975011 — On Oct 22, 2014

Monsanto is calling others prejudiced? You're kidding, right? One of the most evil organizations, disguised as a company, points the finger at people who warn us from Monsanto's poison.

By MrsWinslow — On Aug 08, 2011

@rugbygirl - My understanding is that the EU banned it not because the milk is harmful to humans, but because the use of BGH is hard on the cows. Like the article mentions, it shortens their lifespans (pretty dramatically, I think), etc. It's an animal welfare thing.

A lot of people do think that organic milk must be "healthier." So far, there's no proof that it is. But we buy it in my house anyway because my husband likes the taste much better and because of the animal welfare aspect.

By rugbygirl — On Aug 07, 2011

I've noticed that hormone-free milk always has this little notice saying that no test can detect the difference between milk produced with BGH and milk produced without it. So why did the EU ban BGH if it doesn't make any difference in the milk?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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