“FDA tests confirm oatmeal, baby foods contain residues of Monsanto weed killer,” cried a headline from the Huffington Post last month. The article—a republished press release from the non-profit watchdog group U.S. Right to Know—cited a study that revealed traces of glyphosate, the main ingredient in the pesticide Round-Up, in several oat-based products.
ThisAre There Really Pesticides in Your Oatmeal? 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.) 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.
First, the bad news: It’s true that an FDA chemist found small amounts of glyphosate in several types of oat cereals. In his presentation at the North American Chemical Residue Workshop in July, 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.
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 “probably human carcinogen” after studies linked it to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Earlier this year, the FDA announced that it would begin testing for glyphosate in four widely used crops: soybeans, corn, milk, and eggs.
Now, the better news: The tolerable limit for glyphosate in the United States, set by the Environmental Protection Agency, is 30 ppm. The quantities found in the research presented in July, then, were well below that limit. (They were below Europe’s stricter limit of 20 ppm, as well.)
The oatmeal testing was done as part of an independent research project, an FDA spokesperson tells Health, and the results have not been published or peer-reviewed. Preliminary findings of the FDA’s other product testing have found no glyphosate residues over the allowable limit either, says the Agency, although the results are still being verified.
Brand names were not included in the labeling of these samples. But earlier this year, a lawsuit was filed against Quaker Oats over claims that products were “100% natural,” after independent tests found glyphosate, at a level of 1.18 ppm, in a sample of its Quick 1-Minute Oatmeal.
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,” the FAQ continues. “The typical consumer would, on average, have to consume approximately 1,000 bowls of oatmeal a day to even come close the safe limit set by the US government.”
So what does all this mean? 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, a study out last week 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.
Eating organic can help you lower your exposure to even trace amounts of pesticides, says Sass, particularly for foods you eat daily. (It’s worth noting that in the most recent FDA oatmeal findings, the organic products tested—from brands such as Bob’s Red Mill, 365 Whole Foods, Sprout, and Nature Path—had no detectable levels of pesticides.)
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.
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