A report this summer from Environmental Working (EWG) group found a controversial weed killer in dozens of oats and oat-based cereals. EWG just released findings from a second round of testing and say the chemical—called glyphosate—is present in dozens more.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is the most commonly used weed killer in the U.S. EWG had oat-based products, including oatmeal and oat cereals, tested by two independent labs for the presence of glyphosate. They found the chemical in almost all of the conventional products and in one-third of organic samples.
They compared the levels to a safety threshold they established, one that is far more stringent than the current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) benchmark. Some of the highest levels were found in Quaker Oatmeal Squares, Quaker Old Fashioned Oatmeal, and Honey Nut Cheerios. You can see the full lists here and here.
None of the organic products tested met EWG's upper limit. Though synthetic weed killers like Roundup aren't allowed in organic farming, crops can become contaminated by drift from nearby fields or cross-contaminated in processing facilities, according to EWG.
Glyphosate is classified by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer as "probably carcinogenic" (cancer-causing) to humans, though both the EPA and National Institutes of Health disagree. Earlier this year, a jury in California awarded $289 million to a groundskeeper who says Roundup caused his lymphoma.
Monsanto, the company that makes glyphosate, says it’s not uncommon to find traces of pesticides in food—but that the amounts found by the EWG aren’t even remotely close to any level of concern. Even at the highest levels detected by the independent lab, an adult would need to eat 228 serving of oatmeal every day to reach the EPA’s safety threshold for glyphosate, they pointed out in a statement. “The EWG and some other activist groups opposed to modern agriculture are fearmongering rather than contributing useful and accurate information to the conversation,” they said in the statement. “The result is unwarranted fear and confusion.”
General Mills (which makes Cheerios) says their product is safe and meets regulatory safety levels. Quaker issued a similar statement.
The fact is, oats and oat-based products ARE healthy foods—and not all families have access to (or can afford) organic versions. So what should parents do?
First, it's important to get some perspective by looking at the numbers. Using EWG's safety threshold, they estimate a one in a million cancer risk with eating .01 milligrams of glyphosate a day (that's the amount you'd get by eating two cups of Cheerios or three-quarter cup of Quaker's Old Fashioned Oats every day, according to their tests). Remember that EWG's safety threshold is much stricter than the one set by the EPA—and that not everyone agrees that glyphosate is dangerous in amounts commonly consumed (according to the National Pesticide Information Center, studies on glyphosate and cancer rates in people are conflicting).
Also, keep in mind that a single bowl of cereal or oatmeal isn't dangerous to your kids. EWG scientists say the risk lies in long-term exposure. So as with similar scary-sounding reports (such as arsenic in rice), the same advice stands: Variety is important. Don't rely on one single food day in and day out. Vary the kinds of cereals you buy and the types of breakfasts you serve.
And it's important to note that EWG is not without controversy itself. Some advocates for evidence-based science accuse the advocacy group of using bad science and stirring up worry in order to promote organic food.
"Unfortunately, we have pesticides and other chemicals in our foods," says Jennifer Lowry, M.D., chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health and chief of medical toxicology at Children's Mercy Kansas City. "Parents should provide a variety of foods to their children. Parents should provide a healthy diet for their children. Processed foods have more chemicals. If parents are worried, they should talk about what can be done with policymakers as change will start with those who speak out."
If this issue does concern you, EWG has started a consumer petition that you can sign asking companies to eliminate glyphosate from their foods by sourcing "clean" ingredients. “The bottom line is that we know it is possible to grow oats and other grains without spraying weed killer right before the grain is harvested, which is what’s leading to these high levels of glyphosate,” says EWG toxicologist Alexis Temkin, PhD. “We will continue to put pressure on companies to work with suppliers to source oats that are not produced with glyphosate. Harmful pesticides do not belong in kid's breakfast foods.”
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, mom of two, and Parents Contributing Editor who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition,a no-judgments zone about feeding a family. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. You can follow her on Facebook. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.