Burger allegedly containing “44mg of estrogen” is too good to be true

Zinnia JonesIn 2016, Brough et al. published the results of several studies examining a particular interaction between environmentally friendly behaviors and self-perception of one’s masculinity or femininity. Previous findings consistently reported that men are less likely than women to make eco-friendly choices such as purchasing “green” products, recycling, and refraining from littering, indicating the influence of a green-feminine stereotype which associates environmental consciousness with femininity and “unmanliness”. In the presence of this stereotype, men avoid engaging in environmentally friendly behaviors because they regard this as a threat to their self-concept as masculine men, and because they fear that others will view them as more feminine and less masculine. The authors tested the effects of this threat by asking a group of men to imagine receiving a “gender-threat” gift card with “a floral design on a pink background with the words ‘Happy Birthday’ in a frilly font”, and then asked them to choose between purchasing a series of green or non-green products. Those men who had been exposed to the gender threat were significantly less likely to choose green products than those who were not exposed to the gender threat. Conversely, a followup study found that when men’s masculinity was first affirmed rather than threatened, they were more likely to choose green products.

Recently, this subtext of threatened masculinity and aversion to environmentalism became just plain text – all-caps, Alex-Jones-rant text. Some men, faced with a plant-based meat substitute, have come to believe that this food will quite literally turn them into women.

South Dakota veterinarian James Stangle, writing for cattle industry publication Tri-State Livestock News, claimed that Burger King’s plant-based Impossible Whopper “has 44mg of estrogen”, and further, that “six glasses of soy milk per day has enough estrogen to grow boobs on a male”. Certain soy-wary Twitter users raced to add their own observations, such as this individual’s claims that the burger “will make you female” and that a “standard hormone therapy shot to become transgender” contains 4 mg of estrogen.

As a trans woman who has hormonally transitioned, I read this with great amusement. Such claims are firmly in “not even wrong” territory, only possible in a state of utter, complete unfamiliarity with practically all aspects of transness. It’s as though someone confidently declared that trans women have seven fingers on each hand and must eat at least a pound of cardboard daily – and countless others actually believed this, even as these claims are obviously implausible from the outset.

Let’s break this down:

  • Taking 44 mg of estrogen orally in one day would be a profound overdosage of estrogen, even for trans women. The recommended oral dosage of estrogen for trans women ranges from 2 to 6 mg/day (Hembree et al., 2017), although doses of up to 12 mg/day have been noted in the literature (Jain, Kwan, & Forcier, 2017). Ingesting 44 mg of estrogen is not only unnecessary, but unsafe – if this burger truly did contain 44 mg of estrogen, I would be the one telling everyone not to eat it.
  • If there were foods available over the counter that genuinely contained such large quantities of estrogen which could produce proportionally feminizing effects, trans women would be able to avoid all the barriers to medical transition by just eating this inexpensive food (or, given the alleged dosage, dividing it into several smaller pieces). It is unbelievable that our lives would ever be that easy.
  • There is no such thing as a “standard hormone therapy shot” for trans women. Hembree et al. (2017) recommend injections of 2 to 10 mg weekly or 5 to 30 mg every two weeks.
  • Taking estrogen does not cause you to “become transgender” or “make you female”. As an example, high doses of estrogen have at times been used in men for the treatment of prostate cancer (Lycette et al., 2016). This does not make them transgender or female. It makes them men who are taking a hormonal medication for their prostate cancer.
  • Stangle and others appear to conceive of estrogen as just one thing, almost like a sack full of doubloons from a magical faraway land – it’s all just estrogen, and when you put a certain amount of this estrogen into the human body, you get predictable and proportionate estrogenic effects. In reality it’s more like a bag full of quarters, dimes, a Canadian quarter, a gold coin, a roughly coin-sized metal slug, and an old button that fell off a shirt. Estrogens are not one thing; even the estrogens produced naturally in the human body take three forms – estradiol, estrone, and estriol. Estrogens don’t just do one fixed thing: some, like estradiol (the type of estrogen used by trans women), reach the estrogen receptor more successfully and stimulate it more powerfully, producing much stronger estrogenic effects than estrone or estriol. In turn, certain synthetic estrogens are even more potent in their effects than any natural estrogens.
  • Some “estrogen” isn’t estrogen at all, like that found in the Impossible Whopper. This one is the sack full of old buttons. Stangle appears to be referring to compounds known as isoflavones contained in soy, sometimes called phytoestrogens, which have a structure that is similar to the body’s natural estrogens and allows them to bind to estrogen receptors. Their ability to bind to these receptors does not therefore mean that they will have effects identical to estrogen. Rather, the opposite appears to be the case: a 2010 meta-analysis found that men’s consumption of soy protein or isoflavone extracts had no effects on their levels of testosterone or sex hormone-binding globulin (Hamilton-Reeves et al., 2010). This is not the outcome we would observe if these men were, for instance, taking 44 mg of oral estrogen a day – because this isn’t estrogen.

Dissecting something this blatantly ignorant can feel gratuitous, but these inaccurate beliefs about the potency of phytoestrogens are not benign. Trans support and advice forums like Reddit’s /r/asktransgender are full of questions from trans women about whether consuming soy products will help to produce physical feminization, whether soy products or isoflavones can be used in place of HRT, or even whether eating soy might cause phytoestrogens to interfere with the estradiol they’re already taking; similarly, trans men have asked whether they should remove soy from their diet in order to avoid feminization.

But the best available information appears to indicate that phytoestrogens are a complete non-issue, both for trans people and for cis people – and a complete non-starter when compared to the effects of standard protocols of cross-sex hormone therapy. As always, I’m not a medical professional and this isn’t medical advice. But I’m also not going to stop eating soy – or my HRT. 

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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