“Would you like a side of weed killer with your oatmeal?”
A new study found significant levels of the weed-killing chemical, glyphosate, in common breakfast cereals, granola bars, and oats. The study comes just weeks after a California jury ordered big time biotech company, Monsanto, to pay a hefty $289 million dollars to a man dying of cancer. The jury deemed that Monsanto’s glyphosate containing weed killer (known as Roundup) may have caused the man’s cancer. And, moreover, that the company failed to warn him about the health risks of exposure.
Yet, U.S. governmental agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, continue to argue for the safety of using glyphosate on food crops all across the country. What’s the truth? Who should we believe?
This article discusses the recent glyphosate levels in food, and breaks down the nitty gritty science around glyphosate into language easy to understand.
What is Glyphosate?
Just a fair warning, this topic is FULL of acronyms (so bear with us)! Speaking of acronyms, you’re probably thinking: WTF is glyphosate?
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicide (aka weed killer) commercially known as Roundup. Throughout this article, you’ll see us use glyphosate and Roundup interchangeably. Monsanto created Roundup to kill weeds without killing the crop. You may have heard of Monsanto for their big connections to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Basically, Monsanto manufactures GMO seeds so that farmers can spray Roundup on GMO plants at doses that kill non-GMO plants. Farmers also use glyphosate as a desiccant in which it dries the plant out faster, enabling faster harvesting.
Many studies, however, found that weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup, meaning crop growers need to spray more and more in order to get the desired effect (1). End result = more glyphosate residues in our food supply.
Glyphosate in Breakfast Foods
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) commissioned a new controversial study about glyphosate in food that spread all over media networks. The EWG is a non-profit organization whose mission states, “To empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. With breakthrough research and education, we drive consumer choice and civic action.” The study tested over two dozen breakfast food products.
Researchers detected glyphosate in ALL but 2 of the 45 conventionally grown oat products. Of the 43 positive samples, 75 percent of them exceeded the EWG’s standards for what EWG scientists consider protective of children’s health.
The highest glyphosate levels in cereal tested included:
- Giant Instant Oatmeal, Original Flavor
- Quaker Dinosaur Eggs, Brown Sugar, Instant Oatmeal
- Quaker Old Fashioned Oats
The full list of products that tested positive…
(The * products exceeded the EWG’s safety standard for glyphosate of 160 parts per billion.)
- Back to Nature Classic Granola*
- Quaker Simply Granola Oats, Honey, Raisins, & Almonds*
- Back to Nature Banana Walnut Granola Clusters*
- Nature Valley Granola Protein Oats ‘n Honey*
- KIND Vanilla, Blueberry Clusters with Flax Seeds
- Giant Instant Oatmeal, Original Flavor*
- Quaker Dinosaur Eggs, Brown Sugar, Instant Oatmeal*
- Great Value Original Instant Oatmeal*
- Umpqua Oats, Maple Pecan*
- Market Pantry Instant Oatmeal, Strawberries & Cream*
Oat Breakfast Cereal
- Cheerios Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal*
- Lucky Charms*
- Barbara’s Multigrain Spoonfuls, Original, Cereal*
- Kellogg’s Cracklin’ Oat Bran oat cereal*
- Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars, Oats ‘n Honey*
- Quaker Chewy Chocolate Chip granola bar
- Kellogg’s Nutrigrain Soft Baked Breakfast Bars, Strawberry
- Quaker Steel Cut Oats*
- Bob’s Red Mill Steel Cut Oats*
- Nature’s Path Organic Old Fashioned Organic Oats
- Whole Foods Bulk Bin Conventional Rolled Oats
- Bob’s Red Mill Organic Old Fashioned Rolled Oats
About 30 percent of organic oat products also had detectable glyphosate levels (some organic products had no detectable amounts – those were not listed above). However, these levels were much lower than the EWG’s benchmark. More on organic vs. non-organic foods later…
What Levels are Deemed “Safe?”
Is glyphosate safe? Well, it depends on who you ask! The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a reference safety dose of 1.75 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. The European Union’s safety reference is much lower at 0.5 milligrams per kilogram (2). On the other hand, the EWG recommends less than 0.01 milligrams TOTAL (equivalent to about 160 parts per billion of glyphosate). Many countries have banned or strictly limited use of glyphosate including: Bermuda, Colombia, Belgium, Netherlands, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, France, and Germany.
Glyphosate Effects on Humans
The first thing to say about potential glyphosate dangers to humans is that there have been NO human studies conducted for safety. Let’s repeat that – never studied directly on humans! The only human studies available are cohort studies. In this type of study, researchers watch a group of people over time and look for outcomes, like developing cancer. The researchers do not manipulate any type of intervention (aka no spiked glyphosate cocktails), but rather watch and observe people with reported exposure.
One of these studies is the Agricultural Health study, which investigated glyphosate exposure and cancer in a large group of agricultural workers (3).
Basically, the workers agreed to participate in the study, filled out a questionnaire about their past exposures to glyphosate (and other pesticides), and were monitored for cancer for about seven years. The study found no association between glyphosate exposure and all cancer occurrence. But, they did find an association between multiple myeloma and glyphosate based on a small number of cases. A few disadvantages to this type of study: the glyphosate usage was self-reported (not as reliable), and the follow-up was only seven years.
A larger review study looking at multiple research sources for glyphosate and cancer found no association between the herbicide and cancer (4). There’s just one problem, though. This large study was funded by, you guessed it, Monsanto! Womp womp. #biasedmuch?
Despite these questionably biased studies, in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer ( a subdivision of the World Health Organization) classified glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen.”
Will we ever fully know the extent of glyphosate’s effects on humans? Hard to say; we’re pretty sure people don’t willingly sign up to be a glyphosate drinkin’ guinea pig.
Glyphosate in Pregnancy and Children
Glyphosate has not been tested for safety on pregnant women or their unborn babies (for good reason). Although, there are a few animal and cell-based studies conducted. So far, they’re pretty concerning…
A 2007 study tested the effect of Roundup on human embryo and placental cells. Researchers found that “Roundup exposure may affect human reproduction and fetal development in case of contamination” (5).
Glyphosate has also been linked to birth defects and other hormone abnormalities according to a different 2010 study that incubated frog embryos with a dilution of glyphosate (6).
Pregnant agricultural workers are a very high-risk population when it comes to glyphosate exposure. One 2007 study linked pesticide exposure, like glyphosate, to an increased risk of gestational diabetes (7).
Finally, a recent 2018 study investigated the effect of glyphosate in utero and early developmental ages in rats (8). This study used glyphosate doses comparable to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allowable amount based on weight. Even at low-dose exposure to glyphosate, the young rats experienced significant and distinctive changes in their gut microbiome.
“Prepubertal age microbiota,” writes the researchers, “is more sensitive to GBH [glyphosate based herbicides] compared to the adult microbiota.” They continue, “therefore, the postnatal age is likely a ‘window of susceptibility’ for GBHs to modulate the gut microbiome.”
Um, in English, please?
- The bacteria in our kids’ guts are very sensitive to changes and exposures.
- Promoting a healthy gut microbiome in children is extremely important for their adult health, and reducing future risk of chronic diseases.
- Glyphosate herbicides pose a negative effect on the gut microbiome of children.
Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency believes that children may have the MOST exposure to glyphosate due to additional non-food exposures like treated lawns, soil, and water (9).
How to Limit Exposure
The official U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label prohibits these farmers from using glyphosate/Roundup on their crops. Unfortunately, organic products do not always end up completely free of glyphosate levels in food. The EWG study confirmed this. A few organic products detected glyphosate, however, the levels were much lower than the EWG safety standard. So, how can organic foods contain glyphosate? Glyphosate drifts by wind and air from nearby conventional crops. Cross-contamination during processing may also lead to glyphosate residues.
Here are a few ways you can limit or reduce your glyphosate exposure:
- Choose organic foods when possible.
- Utilize local farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.
- Many small farms cannot afford the organic label, but still practice organic methods.
- Grow your own food with a backyard garden.
- Look for the “Non-GMO Project” label on packaged foods.
- Avoid using Roundup for backyard weeds.
A word on fruits and vegetables…
Although there are some tricks to saving money on organic fruits and vegetables (think farmer’s markets, CSAs, and shopping the ads), affording all organic becomes costly. Consider prioritizing dollars by looking at the “clean fifteen vs. dirty dozen” list. This annual list explains which conventional produce is highest in pesticides and where you want to consider spending a little more for organic options. However, it still remains that eating ANY fruits and (especially) non-starchy vegetables is the BEST overall option. We definitely don’t want to skip out on the vitamins, minerals and cancer-fighting antioxidants of these power foods.
Ending Thoughts on Safety
According to the Department of Agriculture, nearly 240 million pounds of glyphosate was sprayed in the U.S in 2014. Whether in the air, sprayed on playground grass, or inside the foods we eat, it’s increasingly difficult to avoid exposure to glyphosate. The debate of glyphosate dangers, and effects on humans is a very polarized one. But, the facts remain. There are no intervention studies on humans to test the safety of glyphosate. Many animal and cell-based studies show concerning consequences, and much of the research is heavily biased due to funding.
Here at the 131 Method, we believe you must KNOW what is in your family’s foods to make a conscious and educated decision! Choose wisely!
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