Are There Hormones in Your Whey Protein?

One question that has popped up a few times in my email in box relates to the issue of hormones in whey protein supplements. Are there hormones in your whey? It?s not a simple “yes” or “no” answer I am sorry to say, but the short answer is, people have nothing to fear.
Being an animal based product derived from milk, whey, like any animal based product, could potentially contain some naturally occurring hormone(s). The issue is, which hormone and in what amounts?
Modern testing abilities being as sensitive as they are today, being able to search for things in parts per million (ppm), parts per billion (ppb) or even parts per trillion (ppt) in some cases, some hormone of some kind can be found in virtually anything we humans ingest, especially if it is derived from an animal source (though plants also often contain some naturally occurring hormones or hormone-like compounds).
So what’s the scoop on whey? The major concern seems to revolve around:

Steroid based sex hormones (e.g., testosterone, etc.)
Growth hormones and or growth factors (e.g., IGF-1, bovine growth hormone or bovine somatotropin, etc)
Non-hormonal compounds such as anti biotic contamination.
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Are there any steroids in your whey?
Steroid hormones being highly lipophilic (soluble in fat) will be found in the lipid (fat) portion of whey, or any milk based product for that matter. Any high grade whey isolate (WPI) is essentially fat free (read my article “The Whey it is” to understand the differences in the types and quality of whey proteins in back issues of Muscular Development or at my web site at:
For example, CFM isolate contains less than one tenth of one gram of actual dairy fat per 20 gram (20,000 milligrams) serving, which is approximately one standard scoop found in most products.
The additional fat listed on the can of most whey isolate products generally comes from the addition of small amounts of lecithin, which is not an animal based lipid, and or the flavoring system being employed. An ion exchange whey – though not an optimal whey protein in my opinion as explained in “The Whey it is” – will contain even less fat.
So, the reality is sex hormone levels in the lipid portion of milk fat and or fat in whey is so low as to be either non -testable or virtually non testable. Add to that fact that whey isolates are virtually fat free, and it’s easy to see this is a non-issue.
Are there any growth hormones in your whey?
As for growth hormone(s) such as bovine somatotropin (BST) and IGF-1, etc., that’s a bit more complicated. Growth factor hormones (e.g., BST, IGF-1, etc.) are protein based hormones (versus steroid based hormones discussed in the previous section) and thus, can be found in the protein fraction of animal based products, such as muscle, milk, etc.
However, we will keep the discussion of these hormones specific to whey as that’s what this article is about right? Milk, and thus whey protein, does contain minute amount of BST.
BST is simply the bovine (cow) form of growth hormone cows produce naturally. In humans, it’s called Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which is produced in the pituitary gland and is also a popular anti aging drug many people are using to fight the effects of aging.
However, and this is the essential point, BST is not found in higher levels then would be found if the animals were not treated with BST. That is, whether they treat the animals with BST or not, they find the BST levels in milk to be found in minute amounts and in the normal “background” levels.
What are the levels of BST found in milk? It ranges from approximately zero – ten parts per billion (PPB) and typical level found in milk is 3ppb. That translates into approximately 1 mcg (one millionth of a gram) per liter. That ladies and gents is what we call a truly miniscule amount.
To add to the above, protein based hormones such as BST-naturally occurring or otherwise – are quite delicate and digestion of these proteins means they are destroyed when ingested. To sum up, I consider the risk from BST to be again, a non-issue. Don?t forget, the issue has been looked at extensively by the scientific community.
For example:
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) looking at this issue stated “The composition and nutritional values of milk from bST-supplemented cows is essentially the same as milk from untreated cows… (M)eat and milk from rbST-treated cows are as safe as that from untreated cows.” (NIH Technology Assessment Conference Statement on Bovine somatotropin. JAMA. 1991:265:1423-1425).
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) said on the issue “The FDA has answered all questions and concerns about the safety of milk from bST-supplemented cows…” (JAMA. 1990:264:1003-1005).
The journal Science stated “The data evaluated by the FDA documented the safety of food products from animals treated with rbGH.” (Bovine Growth Hormone: Human Food Safety Evaluation. Science. 1990:249:875-884.).
Yes folks, no matter what hysterical issues some people have tried to raise with BST, the data and the facts simply does not support the hysteria. It’s a non-issue to human health. However, and it should be noted, that may not be the case for the cows themselves, just as large amounts of HGH can be problematic for humans, and that issue is currently being evaluated.
They may stop giving cows BST due to the health issues it presents to cows, but not due to any health issues to humans. So read my lips here gang, it won’t matter if the milk is taken from “organic” non BST treated cows or not, the BST levels appear to remain the same and are (a) found in miniscule amounts and (b) in all probability are destroyed during digestion.
Yes, there can differences in the amounts of some compounds (pesticide for example) between some organic foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables) and non-organic foods, but BST simply is not one of them.
As for Insulin-like growth factor one (IGF-1) that’s more interesting and relevant, though it still appears to be a non issue to human health. Different whey product will have varying levels of IGF-1 depending on many variables such as: whether it?s a concentrate (WPC) or an Isolate (WPI), how it’s produced, and even what time of the year the milk is taken from the cows, and so on.
So, I can’t give the levels for every form and type of whey (see aforementioned article above “The Whey it is” to understand different types of whey).
As an example (cause I have the numbers handy on my desk and it’s the form of whey I personally use!), CFM isolates have approximately 35 micrograms (mcg) of IGF per 100g of powder (recall standard scoop is 20g).
Remember, we are not talking gram amounts here but micrograms, which is one millionth of a gram! 35 micrograms could not even be seen by the human eye. Could there be any negative physiological effects to consuming this amount of IGF-1?
Add to the reality how unstable and sensitive to digestion protein based hormones are, it’s highly unlikely. Being a well-known anabolic/anti catabolic hormone, I bet most bodybuilders wished the levels of IGF-1 in whey where much higher!
{Side note: there is a whey product known as Bioactive Whey Fraction (BAWF) protein that has bumped up levels of IGF-1 and other growth factors that should be on the market shortly. Read “The Whey it is” for more info on that if interested.}
Recall that IGF-1 was made a bit of a boogieman hormone when a link (correlation) was found between IGF-1 levels and prostate cancer. However, that association was not found in later studies and any cause and effect relationship between the two is fuzzy at best, and even contradictory according to some studies.
For example, some doctors find that PSA levels (used as a predictor of prostate cancer) often drops when giving older men growth hormone (which increase IGF-1 levels) which is not what one would expect to find if IGF-1 was a cause of prostate cancer nor is IGF-1 levels correlated to PSA levels.
Of course being a growth factor, able stimulate cell division and cell differentiation, it has been theorized that like other growth factors (e.g., GH, epidermal, transforming, platelet derived, fibroblast, nerve, and ciliary neurotrophic growth factors and others) IGF-1 could stimulate the growth of some cancers.
This is far from proven however and far far more complicated then it appears on the surface. For example, IGF-1 levels, as well as GH, are intimately connected the immune system, and have a wide range of essential effects on the body, such as keeping bodyfat levels low and muscle mass levels up, bone formation, and 1000 other effects. So, painting IGF-1 as a bad guy hormone is both unscientific and simply incorrect.
Would a person with a hormone dependent liver cancer want to inject (versus eat) large amounts of IGF-1 or GH? Probably not, but even that is unclear at this time.
Let’s not forget the incidence of prostate cancer increases with age in men but blood levels of IGF-1 and GH decline significantly with age.
The etiology of prostate cancer is a highly complex, and not fully understood interaction between diet, genetics, an inflammatory process, and hormones such as testosterone, DHT, estradiol, and other physiological variables and hormones both known and yet unknown.
The bottom line here is, microgram amounts of IGF-1 found in whey poses minimal (because no thing on earth we eat poses zero risk!) to a non-existent risk, and may even help us in some ways.
For example, IGF-1 has been shown to improve some gastrointestinal diseases and pathology, reduces muscle loss during certain disease states and other beneficial effects.
It’s also essential to remember from the many articles that have been published on whey (written predominantly by yours truly) that whey has been studied extensively for it’s effects on cancer specifically, and across the board has been found to prevent various forms of cancer in animals (with human data strongly suggesting the same effects in people), improve immunity, and other positive effects, such as possibly improve performance and treat over training syndrome (OTS) in athletes.
Thus, it’s clear any increased risks from ingesting miniscule amounts of IGF-1 found in whey – if there are any at all – are offset by the many positive health effects of this well studied protein.
Are there any anti biotics in whey?
Finally, we can address the possibility of any contamination from the anti-biotics given to the cows that may find it’s way into the milk and then the whey.
Several studies have found that in a small number of cases anti-biotic residues could be detected in commercial milk. This has caused some people to use organic non-treated milk.
Having done extensive consulting work in the whey industry, I can tell you all major manufacturers of whey protein powders test constantly for anti biotic residues, as the milk industry in general does.
The major whey manufacturers I have worked with test every single batch of incoming milk for anti-biotic residues and reject any batch that finds any amount, no matter how small. Only milk that gets an ND (non detectable) stamp of approval after testing is used to produce the whey.
Thus, there are no anti biotic residues in your whey supplements. I can?t personally vouch for all whey manufacturers as I have not done consulting work for all whey manufacturers, but the handful I have worked with had an extreme level of quality control over the issue, and I have no reason to suspect other companies are not just as anal about it.
I hope the above clears up any fears or confusion regarding questions people may have had regarding whey. Considering how much research is out there on whey and its many positive effects on such a wide range of things, such as immunity, possibly preventing some cancers, improving performance, etc., I know whey will remain a staple part of my diet for many years to come. It’s off to blend up some whey for me!