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Glyphosate in Foods: the Science vs. the Sensational

Sharing my life and nutrition information on social media inevitably invites some strong reactions and opinions. Lots of them are positive! But, they’re not *always* positive…

I get more hateful comments when I post about Cheerios than about ANY. OTHER. TOPIC.

Yes! Cheerios!

Why, you ask? Well, Cheerios have taken the fall for pesticide usage and have become a dirty word in many circles.

Cheerios are made from oats, and these oats are farmed using a pesticide called glyphosate. People are concerned about the glyphosate residue level found in Cheerios.

glyphosate in foods oats

Parents have been told glyphosate is linked to cancer. The internet adds to the fear-mongering. But let’s look at the science.

(And just as a disclaimer- I have never partnered with or been paid by General Mills, who makes Cheerios, or Monsanto, the creators of Roundup. People always make accusations about that when I share about Cheerios!)

Pesticides in Foods

Let’s look at pesticides and herbicides. 

What are pesticides? According to the NIH, pesticides “kill, repel, or control forms of animal and plant life considered to damage or be a nuisance in agriculture and domestic life.”

Pesticide is a broad term that includes herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides.

Herbicides are chemical compounds that are toxic to unwanted vegetation around plants. 

Pesticides help to control weeds, ward off insect infestation, and reduce any contamination from disease-carrying organisms that could invade our crops. 

Glyphosate is one of the herbicides used on crops like oats, corn, soybeans, and wheat. You may have heard of it as Roundup, the glyphosate-based herbicide produced by Monsanto.

The words pesticide and herbicide may sound scary, but they’re used so that food can be produced safely on a large scale. If unwanted pests, insects, and vegetation ruined large amounts of our agricultural output, we’d struggle to have widespread availability of many foods. 

“Without the use of pesticides, there would be a 78% loss of fruit production, a 54% loss of vegetable production, and a 32% loss of cereal production.”

We have a pretty massive (and growing) world population, so farming practices that make it possible to sustain the world’s population are important. 

farming practices glyphosate in foods

Scientific Consensus on Glyphosate in Foods

There is almost unanimous scientific consensus that glyphosate does not pose any cancer risk/cause cancer from food exposure. 

And because I think understanding what nearly every evidence-based regulatory body in the world says about this topic is important, I’m going to add their statements in here:

chart displaying conclusions about glyphosate from global regulatory and research agencies

I’ve posted about this topic on social media a few times, and I get some of the same pushback every time. 

Even looking at these graphics, you may be wondering why the International Agency for the Research on Cancer (IARC) considers glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Their decision is based largely on studies of agricultural human exposure, not dietary. That statement is NOT talking about people consuming products processed from crops that have been sprayed with pesticides (like Cheerios). 

The IARC also placed glyphosate in their hazard category “2A” along with red meat, very hot beverages, and working as a barber/hairdresser. They also noted that this evidence for any potential carcinogenicity is less compelling than for bacon or wine- but Cheerios have somehow become the scapegoat!

“But the EWG says it’s bad!!”

EWG, or the Environmental Working Group, is a resource that has gained popularity in recent years for reviewing/grading a wide range of consumer products. Many people consult the EWG database when choosing consumables, beauty products, etc.

However, the EWG is a lobbying group with strong ties to the organic food industry. That means they have an incentive to get you to choose organic products. 

Please hear me: buying organic is great. I’m not here to tell you not to buy organic at all. But what I do want to tell you is that it isn’t the ONLY good choice. Not everyone can or chooses to buy organic– for an array of reasons. 

I’m not saying EWG is all bad. They’re a resource you may choose to use when you’re getting acquainted with ingredients in things you regularly use or eat.

But I am saying we should also know that they’re largely funded by organizations that make profit off EWG’s recommendations. And as is true with all conflicts of interest, they make the information inevitably biased. It doesn’t mean the information is all wrong, but it is, by definition, biased. 

To get the most unbiased information, we have to look at research and scientific bodies that are conducting research without conflicts of interest. 

Amount of Glyphosate in Foods Matters

Yes, it is true that pesticide residues can be found in food. (Not just Cheerios!)

But just because they’re present doesn’t mean that they’re harmful or cancer-causing. 

The main principle of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. Nearly everything, in some amount, can be toxic. For example, water! Okay, okay, I’m not saying glyphosate = water. But I am saying that the most important factor when we’re talking about glyphosate in foods is the amount.

Here’s a snippet of a scientific review on glyphosate. I’ll link the article about glyphosate and the risks to human health and the study it references

glyphosate in foods snippet

There’s some notorious fear-mongering accounts online that have made parents feel like they’re poisoning their children by feeding them Cheerios. But let’s take a closer look at the amount of glyphosate in foods and the potential effects. 

What are the limits on glyphosate residues in food?

The EPA uses a term called ‘chronic reference dose’ which is meant to quantify exposure to something over an extended period of time- like, a lifetime. 

“In 2002, the EPA said glyphosate’s chronic reference dose shouldn’t exceed 1.75 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.

Measures specific to cancer risk have specified lower doses – a daily intake no more than 1 mg/kg of body weight per day, according to the May 2016 assessment by U.N. and WHO experts, and 0.5 mg/kg of body weight per day, according to the European Food Safety Authority in 2015.”

So that is the EPA, the UN, and the WHO weighing in on lifelong exposure to dietary glyphosate.

“By the European Food Safety Authority’s standard — the strictest of the three — a 175-pound adult could ingest nearly 40 mg of glyphosate a day without a risk of developing cancer. Alternatively, a child of half that weight could ingest 20 mg of glyphosate a day.”

So How Much Glyphosate is in Foods?

So the report that got Cheerios in some hot water says that Cheerios had the equivalent of about 0.032 mg per 28 gram (1 cup) serving.

Cheerios glyphosate in foods

“In order to max out the acceptable daily intake of 0.5 mg/kg of body weight per day, a 175-pound adult would have to eat more than 1270 servings of the cereal a day. And a child of half that weight would have to eat more than 635 servings.”

This *really* helps put it into perspective for me. I don’t think I need to explain how not-even-close we are to any sort of ingestion of Cheerios that could be problematic.

Also I want to mention that the report said Cheerios were found to have levels “as high as” that number above. That means that all samples may not have even had levels that high or near that high.

You can apply this same analysis to other foods too, not just Cheerios. When you look at it like this, it seems silly to worry about glyphosate, since we’d never come close to ingesting the acceptable daily intake amount.

Glyphosate in Foods: an Environmental Perspective

Ecologically/environmentally speaking, there are some potentially negative impacts of pesticide use on the environment.

That is not my particular area of expertise to educate on, so I don’t try to position myself as an expert on a topic I’m not an expert in. 

I don’t say this as a cop out. I’m just truly not the right person to analyze the environmental aspects.

So for the purpose of this article, I’m looking at this issue through a purely nutritional lens. We obviously are not going to completely stop using pesticides in the near future, so I think it’s important to understand what it means for you and your family and what you eat on a regular basis.

rows of crops

What I Like About Cheerios

Honestly, there are quite a few nutritional upsides to Original Cheerios (in the yellow box, not necessarily speaking about the flavored versions).

The main ingredient is oats. Oats are a great source of fiber and are an energy-providing carbohydrate. Cheerios are also a good source of:

  • protein (which many cereals lack)
  • iron (also hard to come by in many cereals and other kid-friendly foods!)
  • several other vitamins and minerals

Cheerios offer more nutritional benefits than MANY other cereals.

yellow Cheerios box

They’re affordable and widely accessible. 

More benefits:

  • Gluten-free and allergy friendly. (Not all oat product are gluten-free, but Cheerios certifies that their oats are gluten-free.)
  • Picky eater friendly! So many picky eaters I’ve helped will eat Cheerios, and that’s a big win for many families. 
  • Versatile! You can serve them dry on their own, with milk, with soy milk, fruit, on yogurt, or even as a fun rice-krispie type treat with marshmallows.
  • Easy for even young eaters to grab and snack on once they’ve developed the pincer grasp

There are so many nutritional upsides that I feel great about recommending Cheerios as a kid-friendly snack or part of a meal. 

FAQs

Why Don’t You Recommend Organic O’s Cereal Instead?

There’s no clear nutritional benefit to choosing organic O’s over Cheerios. 

Organic O’s are typically more expensive, less accessible, and are not fortified with vitamins and minerals. 

For a long time we’ve been led to believe that organic products are somehow healthier, but that’s typically not the case. 

If you still prefer to choose organic, there’s nothing wrong with that, truly! You do you.

Are you funded or sponsored by General Mills?

No, I do not have any current or past partnerships with General Mills. Some people think that I’m recommending Cheerios because they are paying me. It’s not true! I recommend them based on all the reasons above.

Are you funded or sponsored by Monsanto? 

Also no. Some people think that because I’m saying it’s okay to use foods that have trace residues of glyphosate, that I have some deal with Monsanto- the company that originally created the herbicide Roundup. I have no connection with them or any other herbicide company. I make $0 for telling you any of this information. 

If we know that glyphosate is potentially toxic, why do we allow any of it in our kids’ foods?! Are you trying to poison kids?!

Again, pesticides and herbicides are one of those necessary “evils” that allows us to grow food on a massive scale to support a massive population. Dietary exposure to any glyphosate residues are far below levels that would cause harm. Remember, I also have kids I love and care about, so I have no incentive to poison kids. 

I heard that ‘so and so’ lab found high levels of glyphosate in Banza!? 

Whenever you see an attention-grabbing headline, I encourage you to always dig a little deeper. 

Who funded this study? 

What lab are we talking about? 

What do those arbitrary numbers really mean? 

Are there any conflicts of interest?

If the answers are…fishy, unclear, sensational…then I wouldn’t put a ton of stock in it.

As far as Banza goes, the particular value of glyphosate residue that the lab supposedly found was still below the allowable limit for chickpeas. Banza is a great source of protein and fiber, and swapping it out for a plain bowl of noodles isn’t nutritionally superior.

The group that brought this “concern” to light is Moms Across America, an anti-GMO and anti-pesticide grassroots group. They share all kinds of scary headlines on their website so I’d encourage you not to visit it.

One study here and there can find a cause for nearly anything. Just because something is reported doesn’t mean it’s true. Not all published research is GOOD research. That’s why we like to see multiple studies, that are peer reviewed, with good study designs, in reputable journals, etc. before reaching a conclusion on a topic.

Why are you defending glyphosate!?

I’m not a spokesperson for glyphosate, for herbicides, or for anything sinister you think is going on behind the scenes. 

I am trying to bring people evidenced-based information without the side of fear-mongering. 

I think that narrowing the variety of foods that people eat (due to excessive fear) has nutritional downsides that can be detrimental. So I’m trying not to “cancel” foods that are actually nutritious and have very little risk associated with their consumption.

Final Thoughts on Glyphosate in Foods

Here’s the truth: there’s risk to everything. There’s risk to going outside, to being in the sun too long, to getting in a car or on an airplane. Nothing that you do is zero risk.

But there’s also a cost-benefit analysis to everything. I’m not sure any of us could subsist/feed our families if we wanted to avoid every miniscule amount of “toxin,” risk, etc. in the world. 

Knowing this, and knowing that the residual amount of glyphosate found in conventionally farmed products has been studied and declared not to be harmful in the diet, I’m still feeding my kids Cheerios (and Banza). 

Don’t let the fear mongering headlines get the best of you.

You have permission to unfollow anyone who makes you feel like you’re poisoning your children.

I promise to always do my best to bring you evidence-based information on the current nutrition topics of the day- whether or not it’s popular or attention-grabbing!

2 Comments

Catherine · July 12, 2024 at 3:13 pm

You have been my go to since my first child several years ago and I’m so thankful for your research and input!

Maggie Shulka · July 11, 2024 at 8:07 pm

Thank you so much for all you do to set the record straight about fear mongering.

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Kacie Barnes holding an apple
Hi, I’m Kacie!

I’m a mom of two and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. I offer e-guides and e-books (go to my Shop page), workshops, brand partnerships, and nutrition counseling. Check out my blog for nutrition and feeding tips for your little ones.

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This post may contain affiliate links. I may earn a commission. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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