Even your organic oats probably contain traces of the herbicide glyphosate.
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Bad news: There might be a cancer-causing toxin lurking in your oats. Multiple reports have suggested that popular oat products contain traces of the pesticide glyphosate, creating an ongoing debate over whether it's present at unsafe levels. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) published a report detailing the levels of glyphosate in various granolas, oats, cereals, and bars. The majority of samples had more glyphosate that what EWG considers "protective of children's health with an adequate margin of safety."
The amount of glyphosate that EWG considers safe for children is anything under 160 parts per billion (ppb). Thirty-one of the 45 samples they tested had 160 ppb or more. Quaker Old Fashioned Oats was one of the worst offenders with one sample testing for 1,300 ppb. Following that, Giant instant oatmeal and Quaker Dinosaur Eggs both showed samples in the 700s. General Mills' Cheerios tested at levels ranging from 470 ppb to 530 ppb. (Here's the latest info on produce and pesticides from the dirty dozen and clean 15 lists.)
In fact, three consumer groups had filed complaints against General Mills in 2016 after an independent lab test found glyphosate in samples of the granola bars. Now, as a result of that lawsuit, this new research, and the resulting controversy, General Mills announced it will change how it labels some of its products. In a lawsuit settlement, the company has agreed to stop labeling Nature Valley bars as "100 percent natural," USA Today reports.
If you're patting yourself on the back right now for shopping strictly organic, know that you're probably still consuming very small amounts of glyphosate. EWG researchers found that Bob's Red Mill and Nature's Path organic rolled oats had 10 ppb to 30 ppb in five samples. The glyphosate could have drifted from nearby crops or resulted from cross-contamination at a packaging facility, according to EWG. (Related: Are Organic Food Labels Tricking Your Taste Buds?)
Last year glyphosate was added to California's list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer. And some researchers believe an increased use of glyphosate in the U.S. may have contributed to a rise in digestive diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's, and ulcerative colitis.
Not everyone agrees that the levels of glyphosate in our oats is cause for alarm, though. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets its tolerance for glyphosate at 30 parts per million (ppm), which is 30,000 ppb. In other words, even at 1,300 ppb, the Quaker Old Fashioned Oats sample was way below the limit set by EPA. Yes, the EWG and EPA have a 29,840 ppb discrepancy in their suggested limits on glyphosate. And with one side calling EWG "fearmongering" and the other calling EPA "notorious for neglecting new science on chemicals," it's hard to sort through who's accurate.
Glyphosate is one of the most widely used herbicides in the U.S. and it was a hot topic even before the recent EWG report. Earlier this month, a California man won a lawsuit against Monsanto, the company that creates Roundup, a weed killer containing glyphosate. He has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and filed the suit arguing that Monsanto did not warn him of the cancer risk involved in using the weed killer while he was working as a groundskeeper. (Related: The #1 Trick to See If You Should Buy Organic Produce)
All of this doesn't mean you should skip oats, though. They're rich in fiber and protein and low in sugar if you go for unsweetened. "The problem with these types of headlines and studies is that it creates fear and hysteria amongst parents," says Shilpi Agarwal, M.D., family medicine physician. "I would definitely aim for less processed, sugary cereals but eating the foods identified in the study is unlikely to contribute alone to cancer." If you're feeling reluctant, you can always stick to organic options. All the organic oat products that EWG tested had glyphosate levels well below both the EWG and EPA limits. "Bottom line, whenever possible buy organic because the pesticide and chemical burden is lower," says Dr. Agarwal. But organic or not, the tried-and-true rule still holds up: "It is important that you eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains more than packaged and processed foods," she says.