“Unsafe levels of a weed killer chemical in oat products,” cries a headline from CNN published earlier this week. The accompanying article cites a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit advocacy organization, that revealed traces of glyphosate—the main ingredient in the pesticide Roundup—in several types of oat cereal, oatmeal, granola, and snack bars. Almost three-quarters of food samples tested “showed higher glyphosate levels than what the group’s scientists believe to be ‘protective of children’s health,'” CNN reported.
This sounds pretty scary, especially for anyone who eats oats regularly. (At Health, that’s a lot of us—the whole grain lowers cholesterol, burns fat, and fills you up with fiber, folate, and potassium.) Plus, we’ve been hearing a lot about Roundup lately: Last week, a California jury awarded $289 million to a man who says he got cancer from repeated exposure to the chemical during his years as a pest-control manager for the San Francisco school district.
We couldn’t help but wonder: Does this mean we should ditch our go-to morning meal? We dug a little deeper, and here’s what we found out.
What is glyphosate, and why is it in our food?
Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world, and is used in hundreds of weed-killing products. Many health and agricultural experts say that humans don’t absorb glyphosate in the same way they do harmful chemicals like DDT, so it’s safe in low quantities—like what’s left on sprayed crops after they’re harvested, cleaned, and prepared for food sales.
In 2015, however, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen” after studies linked it to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In 2016, the FDA announced that it would begin testing for glyphosate in four widely used crops: soybeans, corn, milk, and eggs.
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So how much is really there—and how much is safe?
First, the bad news: It’s true that glyphosate has been found in several types of oat products. Scientists from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have even spoken about this themselves: In a presentation at the North American Chemical Residue Workshop in 2016, FDA researcher Narong Chamkasem highlighted the amounts found in samples of instant oatmeal (maple brown sugar, cinnamon spice, peach and cream), non-instant steel cut oats, and infant oat cereal (plain, banana, and banana strawberry). These quantities ranged from 0.3 to 1.67 parts per million.
Now, the better news: The tolerable limit for glyphosate residue in grains, set by the Environmental Protection Agency, is 30 ppm. The quantities found in that research, then, were well below that limit. (They were below Europe’s stricter limit of 20 ppm, as well.) At the time, an FDA spokesperson told Health that the oatmeal testing was done as part of an independent research project, and the results had not been published or peer-reviewed. Since then, the Agency says, preliminary testing of other food products have found no glyphosate residues over the allowable limits, either.
The new EWG report contains numbers that sound a bit more alarming, but they should also be looked at in perspective. The EWG’s tests found gyphosate levels ranging from 0 to 1,300 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 new EWG report—1,300 ppb, or 1.3 ppm—is still in line with what the FDA announced previously, and still lower than the EPA’s tolerable threshold.
So what’s the problem, then?
The EPA’s tolerable limit isn’t good enough for the EWG, whose scientists say that “legal is not the same as safe.” The authors of the new report cite a different glyphosate guideline for adults—of 1.1 milligrams per day—proposed by the state of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to protect against cancer. “That level of exposure is more than 60 times lower than the safety level set by the Environmental Protection Agency,” the report states.
Then the EWG factored in “an additional 10-fold margin of safety,” to account for the fact that children need much less exposure to chemicals to suffer adverse health effects, which left them with this: “EWG calculated that a one-in-a-million cancer risk would be posed by ingestion of 0.01 milligrams of glyphosate per day,” the report states. “To reach this maximum dose, one would only have to eat a single 60-gram serving of food with a glyphosate level of 160 parts per billion, or ppb.”
In other words, the EWG’s benchmark for a safe level of glyphosate is below 160 ppb, or 0.16 ppm—and most of the samples of conventional oat products tested in their study exceeded this. Several different brands of oats and granola were tested in the study, including Quaker Oats, Cheerios, Barbara’s, and Giant. Quaker Old Fashioned Oats were found to have the most glyphosate per sample, with more than 1,000 ppb in two of three samples tested.
On Quaker Oats’ website, the company says 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 the oats are transported to us,” an FAQ page states, “we put them through our rigorous process that thoroughly cleanses them (de-hulled, cleaned, roasted and flaked). Any levels of glyphosate that may remain are trace amounts and significantly below any limits which have been set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as safe for human consumption.”
So what does all this mean for our health?
Unfortunately, nothing definitive. It’s clear that many conventionally farmed crops that we eat in America are sprayed with glyphosate before harvesting, but so far no studies have found levels high enough to raise red flags, at least not officially.
Want to play it safe? Avoiding oats has its downsides, too: The hearty whole grains are rich in fiber and important nutrients, and they’ve long been touted as a natural way to lower cholesterol.
In fact, one 2016 study found that oat consumption doesn’t just help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, but that it also brings down 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 don’t want to give up your regular breakfast bowl but you’re concerned about pesticide levels, there is one thing you can do: Choose organic oats, says Health contributing nutrition editor Cynthia Sass, RD.
RELATED: 11 Foods You Should Buy Organic
Eating organic can help you lower your exposure to even trace amounts of pesticides, says Sass, particularly for foods you eat daily. In the new 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 even the EWG’s stringent threshold for safety.
Organic foods are pricier than conventionally grown ones, but they don’t have to break the bank, says Sass. “If you’re on a budget, look for store-brand organic products,” she recommends. “And you can save on name brand organic manufacturers by looking for printable coupons on their web sites, or on retailer sites.” She also suggests checking the bulk section at your supermarket, where items tend to cost less per serving, for organic options.