Are There Really Pesticides in Your Oatmeal?

After lab tests found traces of weed killer in oatmeal samples, an activist group said government safety limits on pesticides don't go far enough.

After research from a nonprofit advocacy organization revealed traces of a common pesticide in oatmeal and other oat products, many people may have wondered whether their breakfast cereal was safe. A closer look at the issue can help you make an informed decision about choosing healthy, safe oatmeal and other foods.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental advocacy group focused on public health, sent samples of oatmeal, granola, and other oat products from 14 brands for laboratory tests in 2018 to check their levels of glyphosate—the main ingredient in the pesticide Roundup. The first round of tests showed varying levels, and the EWG did a second round later in the year that showed similar results. A few products had even higher levels this time.

EWG says these levels are cause for concern, but the food companies say their oat products meet government safety standards. And at the same time, oats can be part of a healthy diet. They contain healthy amounts of fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants. Oatmeal, in particular, has also been linked to many health benefits, including weight, cholesterol, and diabetes management, as well as general cardiovascular health.

What Is Glyphosate?

Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the United States and likely the world, according to data published in 2016 in Environmental Sciences Europe. It has been sold commercially in the U.S. since 1974. Since then, any glyphosate residues found on foods need to be below tolerance levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency to be sold to the public.

In 2015, however, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans" after limited evidence based on real-world human exposures linked it to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. Some of the studies included in the IARC review looked at people, such as farmers, exposed to glyphosate through their jobs.

In 2016 and 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested for glyphosate in four widely used crops: soybeans, corn, milk, and eggs. The results showed no pesticide residue violations for any of the foods.

In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an interim decision on glyphosate, concluding that it is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans based on a more extensive review than that done by the IARC.

Some Perspective on the Numbers

Glyphosate has indeed been found in several types of oat products. But the amounts are well below the EPA's tolerable limit of 30 parts per million (ppm) for grains. The FDA also says that preliminary testing of other food products has found no glyphosate residues over the allowable limits.

EWG's numbers should also be looked at in perspective. Their tests found glyphosate levels ranging from 0 to just over 2,800 parts per billion (ppb). Take note: That's parts per billion, whereas we were previously talking about parts per million. When the numbers are converted, even the highest concentration found in the later EWG results—2,837 ppb, or 2.8 ppm—is still considerably lower than the EPA's tolerable threshold of 30 ppm.

Reconsidering the Limits

The EWG maintains that the EPA's tolerable limit isn't low enough. "Just because a pesticide level is legal in food doesn't mean that level is safe," EWG's president said in a 2018 statement. EWG scientists support a far lower dietary exposure limit for glyphosate: .01 mg as opposed to the EPA's allowable limit of 70 mg, according to an EWG statement.

Then the EWG went a step further and proposed an additional margin of safety to account for the fact that children can tolerate much less exposure to chemicals before experiencing adverse health effects. To reach this proposed level, a person would only have to eat a single 60-gram serving of food with a glyphosate level of 160 parts per billion, or ppb.

Most of the samples of conventional oat products tested in the 2018 samples exceeded the level EWG proposed. Several brands of oats and granola were tested, including Quaker Oats, Cheerios, Barbara's, and Giant. In the first round of EWG tests, Quaker Old Fashioned Oats cereal was found to have the most glyphosate per sample, with more than 1,000 ppb in two of three samples tested. In the second round of EWG tests, the highest level of 2,837 ppb was found in one sample of Quaker Oatmeal Squares breakfast cereal.

In response, Quaker stated on its website that it does not add glyphosate during any part of the milling process but that it is commonly used by farmers who apply it pre-harvest. "Once Quaker receives oats from the farms, we rigorously clean them following our stringent internal processes (including de-hulling, cleaning, roasting, and flaking). Any minimal levels of glyphosate that may remain in finished products where oats are an ingredient are significantly below regulatory limits, safe for our consumers, and well within compliance with the safety standards set by the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to name a few."

Organic as an Option

Despite EWG's call for lower limits, the EPA stated that current tolerable levels are safe, and glyphosate remains widely used in conventional, non-organic agriculture, including the production of oats, as well as other grains and crops.

Avoiding oats has downsides: The hearty whole grains are rich in fiber and important nutrients, and they've long been touted as a natural way to lower cholesterol. And one 2016 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that oat consumption doesn't just help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels but that it also improves two other markers of cardiovascular risk—non-HDL cholesterol (total cholesterol minus HDL) and apolipoprotein B, a protein that carries bad cholesterol through the blood.

If you want to enjoy the benefits of eating oatmeal or other oat products but you're concerned about pesticide levels, there is one thing you can do: Choose organic oats, said Health contributing nutrition editor Cynthia Sass, RD.

Eating organic can help you lower your exposure to even trace amounts of pesticides, said Sass, particularly for foods you eat daily. In the later EWG study, a few of the organic products tested did contain traces of glyphosate—possibly from pesticides drifting from nearby conventionally grown crops or cross-contamination in factories. But none of the levels were above the EWG's stringent threshold for safety.

Some organic foods are pricier than conventionally grown ones, but there is still a range of options. "If you're on a budget, look for store-brand organic products," said Sass. "And you can save on name-brand organic manufacturers by looking for printable coupons on their websites or on retailer sites." Also, check the bulk section at your supermarket, where items tend to cost less per serving, for organic options, said Sass.

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