In this controversial post, we discuss the truth and research surrounding the latest headlines about glyphosate in kids cereal and cancer.
If you’re part of any mommy Facebook groups you’ve probably heard the shocking news. A chemical in weedkiller, glyphosate has been showing up in popular products like cereals, cookies, and pasta. The same chemical that has been allegedly linked to cancer. So are we putting ourselves and our kids at risk of cancer? We dive into the research get to the bottom of this controversial topic!
Have You Heard the Latest?
The internet is buzzing right now with concerns about the alleged Weed Killer in products on the market. Reports like this one from the EWG (Environmental Working Group) and this one from CTV contain lists of products that have been found to contain the weedkiller Glyphosate. Products like Cheerios cereal, numerous Quaker oat products, and some Fontaine Santé Hummus have shockingly made the list! Rumor has it that the chemical is an endocrine disruptor that has been linked to common health problems like birth defects, reproductive issues, and yes, even cancer.
You may have seen the headlines about the man who sued (and won his case) against Monsanto (the producer of glyphosate) because he claimed that working with glyphosate caused his cancer.There are now hundreds of other people following suit and gearing up to sue Monsanto for similar reasons. Without getting too far into the debate (that would be a whole other post), Monsanto is appealing the decision stating: “[This] does not change the fact that more than 800 scientific studies and reviews – and conclusions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and regulatory authorities around the world – support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer, and did not cause Mr. Johnson’s cancer.”
So what’s going on here? I’m here to tell you just that! Firstly, let’s see what we’re dealing with.
What is Glyphosate?
Glyphosate is a herbicide, more commonly known as ‘Roundup’. Farmers spray this product on crops – mostly wheat and oats – to kill the weeds that surround the plant in order to help it grow better. The chemical is registered for use in 130 countries and has become the most heavily used herbicide in the entire world. As mentioned, it is produced by Monsanto, a global modern agriculture company that “develops products and tools to help farmers around the world grow crops while using energy, water, and land more efficiently,” according to their website. Although you may recognize the name from the popular Netflix documentary from a few years back, ‘GMO OMG’, where they got shit on for producing GMO products. Cue the GMO-free movement. I’ve written about GMOs extensively here and here, so I recommend you check those out first.
Not only is glyphosate the most extensively used herbicide in the world, it is also the most extensively studied, apparently, so Monsanto stands beside their claim that it is safe. Well, if it has been used for over 40 years, why are we only now finding it pop up in our breakfast bowls?
Why is Glyphosate in Kids Cereal?
Originally, glyphosate was used only for killing weeds, but a new, creative purpose has gained it some unwanted attention lately. Farmers are now using the chemical for ‘preharvest’ – meaning they spray it on the plant right before its crop is removed and it is processed to become food. In Monsanto’s guide for using the chemical, they state, “A preharvest weed control application is an excellent management strategy to not only control perennial weeds, but to facilitate harvest management and get a head start on next year’s crop.” This means that spraying the plant right before harvest kills it so it can be harvested sooner rather than later, making for quicker turnover of product and faster profit. The technique is used even more-so in cooler regions where harvest is often a race against time. It is this new use of glyphosate that seems to be why it’s often showing up in our food system.
Let’s delve into what impact it has on our health.
Glyphosate and Cancer
Cancer has been the biggest concern when it comes to glyphosate, and whether or not there are any grounds to be concerned depends on who you ask. Some places like California and Sri Lanka support research that says glyphosate causes cancer and have started to place restrictions or bans on it. It has been the topic of hot debates for quite some time, and sometimes even the researchers themselves can’t decide. The US Environmental Protection Agency for example initially deemed glyphosate to be possibly carcinogenic in 1985, but then jumped back to non-carcinogenic in 1991.
In terms of what Canada thinks, The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) did extensive testing on 3,188 products a couple of years back to see if there was glyphosate in them. Turns out that 29.1% tested positive. Sounds bad, right? Well, let me put it into perspective by telling you about MRLs first. MRL stands for Maximum Residue Limits – the amount of a chemical set by Health Canada that is deemed safe for humans and acceptable to be in food products; anything above the MRL could be dangerous and anything below it is in the clear. In this research by the CFIA, only 1.3% of products exceeded the MRL. Of course, we’d ideally want this to be 0 but hey, 1.3% is a heck of a lot better than 29.1%. This also goes to show how easily facts can be misconstrued, especially when they are portrayed by the media often with the objective to get a rise out of people.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO) labelled glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Huh? That’s a thing? Sounds a bit casual to me. They classified it as being in ‘Group 2A’ so I did some digging to see what that means. This organization is legit so I want to take what they say seriously. Later in their document that you can check out here, they explain:
“This category is used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.”
**Note the words limited evidence and animals here**
Continuing: “Limited evidence means that a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations for the observations (called chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out.”
**This basically means that animals (or people, maybe, they don’t specify), who have been exposed to the chemical sometimes have cancer – this could be because of the exposure or could be for any other reason – like genetics, lifestyle, sheer bad luck – anything!**
Continuing: “This category is also used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and strong data on how the agent causes cancer.”
**Okay, I won’t harp on that statement so much; it basically means we can’t prove that it causes cancer in humans, but it would make sense if it did.**
They also mentioned that the research that did seem to be a little convincing of glyphosate causing cancer was from agricultural exposures, not from exposure through food. After dissecting this I’m not totally convinced that glyphosate causes cancer and even to say it “probably does” seems a bit much to me. Let’s take a look at what other scientists have to say.
In 2016, a group of scientists conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to see if glyphosate caused cancer. Both types of research, a systematic review and meta-analysis, are among the highest quality/most accurate research methods. Using these research methods means the researchers thoroughly analyzed and critiqued all the other research that had been done to date, to really get to the bottom of what the story is. It turns out though that they had a lot of difficulty doing that; there were a lot of limitations, meaning the research they analyzed was conflicting and different in terms of methods used and research conducted. The researchers were very honest about this difficulty in their report, so they caution readers about coming to conclusions.
Their bottom line was, “Combining these results with recognition of the methodological weaknesses of the small number of existing studies and an overall body of literature that is not strong, consistent, temporally unambiguous, or indicative of a positive biological gradient, we determined that no causal relationship has been established between glyphosate exposure and risk of NHL, HL, MM, leukaemia, or any subtype of LHC.”
Again, this study looked at the potential carcinogenicity due to agricultural exposure to the chemical, not to ingesting it in food – that research just does not exist.
Farm Worker versus Cereal Eater
I keep finding myself reminding you that the research we have is on agricultural exposure and that is a huge point overlooked by the media, so it deserved its own heading here. Agricultural exposure means that the people in the study/research were farming or working directly with the chemical. As you can imagine the exposure you get to the chemical by holding it and using it directly is much, much higher than the trace amounts that have been found in some of our food. So are you a farm worker or a cereal eater? If you’re a farm worker dealing with this chemical you have more reason to be concerned; if you’re a cereal eater, you’re probably in the clear. However, if you are a cereal eater and you are really freaked out by there being even a fraction of herbicide in your bowl, then that’s fair too. I will remind you though that in the world we live in today, it is nearly impossible to avoid trace amounts of chemicals and additives of some kind – whether that be in food or in everyday products. It’s unsettling of course, but it’s reality.
Will Going Organic or GMO-free Reduce the Glyphosate in Kids Cereal and Cancer Risk?
You might be thinking, “If glyphosate is a herbicide, should we be choosing organic foods to avoid it?” Unfortunately, not quite. Although organic farming does not allow the use of non-organic herbicides or pesticides, apparently avoiding glyphosate is not that easy. The chemical sticks well to water and soil, allowing the its particles to float wherever they want – organic farms included. Since use of glyphosate is so widespread, it is nearly impossible to keep its particles off of organic crops.
Okay so what about GMOs? Well glyphosate was initially used on GMO crops only. Remember how we said it can kill the plant to yield crops faster? Well back when it was used exclusively to kill weeds, only the GMO plants were genetically engineered to withstand it, so they were the only crops exposed to it. However, because of this new use of spraying a plant with the intention of making it die, non-GMO plants are now being hit.
The bottom line for this debate is that avoiding glyphosate by going GMO-free won’t help, and going organic won’t solve the problem completely but likely will reduce your exposure if for some reason you’re still concerned.
Can trace amounts of glyphosate build up in the body and cause harm in the long run?
So what about these ‘trace amounts’ of glyphosate4? Can they build up in our bodies to create large amounts of glyphosate? According to the US Environmental Protection Agency: NO. Our bodies seem to rid themselves of glyphosate completely within 24 hours of exposure. This happens in the bathroom. Thanks, body! You rock! So we don’t need to worry about that. We’re still left wondering though what constitutes as a ‘trace’ and how much glyphosate exposure is too much.
How Much is Too Much Glyphosate?
As usual when we talk about chemicals, what it comes down to is how much we’re exposed to/ingesting. You know, pretty much everything in our environment is a ‘chemical’ since the definition of a chemical is “any basic substance that is used in or produced by a reaction involving changes to atoms or molecules” – that’s pretty much everything! Even water! So even though the media makes us half scared of the word ‘chemical’, they’re not all bad. Whether or not a chemical is bad depends on 3 things: concentration (the amount of the chemical), route (how we are exposed to it), and exposure (how long we are exposed to it for).
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO), the acceptable daily intake, or the amount that we can safely have, for glyphosate is up to 1.0 mg/kg. (How much your body can handle depends on your body weight). So when credible organizations search for glyphosate in foods they’re hoping to find traces much below that threshold.
Last November, the US Environmental Protection Agency wanted to find out if people were exceeding that amount. To do this they needed to know what people were eating so they used a database derived from surveys about food consumption and food purchasing data. Next they did extensive testing on those products to calculate the corresponding glyphosate intake of the population. The result: The glyphosate amount consumed by people of all ages did not nearly reach the acceptable amount of 1.0 mg/kg – so we’re in the clear. It is notable however, that children ages 1-2 were exposed to glyphosate more than anybody else, but even they only had 0.228379 mg/kg – still far below the threshold.
One thing to think about though is, ‘Were the same products that were included in the EWG study included in this one too?’ Well we don’t know for sure, but given the products’ popularity, likely, yes. So if our food has already been investigated and proved to be safe, then why is the article by the EWG’s Children Health Initiative saying otherwise? WELL the EWG article says that the amount of glyphosate that is unsafe is 160 ppb. How does that compare to the 1.0 mg/kg limit set by FAO and WHO? 1.0 mg/kg = 1000 ppb – much higher than 160 ppb. That means the EWG is saying only ⅙ of the threshold for glyphosate set by FAO/WHO can be dangerous! What the heck is going on here? It’s a he-said, she-said.
It’s a He Said She Said Scenario
Let’s give both parties a chance here before we decide who to side with.
|EWG – Environmental Working Group||WHO – World Health Organization|
|An American activist group that is, and I quote, “ working tirelessly to make sure someone is standing up for public health when government and industry won’t.”|
They are highly critiqued for their lack of scientific credibility.
|WHO – The authority that coordinates international health within the United Nations system. They are the leaders on global health matters – creating health research agendas, health standards, and evidence-based health policy.|
FAO – A specialized agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger and make agriculture, forestry and fisheries more productive and sustainable
JECFA – An independent scientific expert committee that studies the risks associated with food additives for the FAO and WHO
It’s not looking good so far here is it. Let’s continue and see how these organizations have been serving us.
|Every year EWG provides us with a “dirty dozen” food list – a list of foods on the market that have the most pesticides. Probably a good list to have, right?|
Not quite. Every year following the list release, scientists follow it up with articles like this one proving that the foods are actually safe.
|Every year, and everyday, WHO provides us with evidence based research and policies that advance our healthcare systems.|
To start, they created the International Classification of Diseases – setting standards by which all countries across the world are able to diagnose people. It’s probably pretty important that we know how to do that – thanks WHO! Oh, and they also created the Essential Medicines List — a list of key medications for healthcare systems all over the world – also good to have.
Need I go on? Hardly. But let’s take a look at who we’re dealing with here.
– I couldn’t quite get a number for their whole team/staff but they have 19 board members
– From what I can tell from their website they have only 4 offices: 2 in California, 1 in DC and 1 in Minnesota
– Board members include “effective critics of establishment agriculture and U.S. farm policy”, freelance and best selling book authors, TV show hosts, and entrepreneurs of various kinds.
– More than 7000 people from more than 150 countries
– Their staff include professionals like medical doctors, public health specialists, scientists and epidemiologists
– Over 1700 professional staff
– Offices in 85 countries
– 7 different departments bringing together experts in various fields
– Members bring all sorts of expertise to the table since they work in a range of disciplines including risk assessment, toxicology, epidemiology, medicine, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, and life sciences.
Are you laughing yet? Let’s see how these ‘experts’ are selected for each of the organizations.
Let’s look at the simplified version of selecting experts for the JECFA. Experts sit on the committee for 5 years and then there’s an open call for application from scientific experts specializing in identified fields. Experts are screened based on the expertise needed, their scientific views, and of course their experience in the field and with the research. The final meeting and selection occurs only after careful evaluation of declarations of interests submitted by each expert.
Let’s look at the simplified version of selecting ‘experts’ for the EWG. Basically, just turn on the TV and see who’s there! The bios for the board members talk WAY more about the members’ media experience than their science background. Why? Because most board members have no science background. Their bios focus on the books they’ve written, TV show appearances they’ve had, and advocacy efforts in their children’s schools. I have to point out again that the organization’s co-founder is, “widely recognized as one of the environmental community’s most prominent and effective critics of establishment agriculture and U.S. farm policy.” Drama. It was really hard for me not to immediately side with WHO/FAO/JECFA after scrolling through the EWG’s credentials, or lack thereof.
The icing on the cake for me was seeing Mark Hyman on their board members list. Every dietitian out there reading this just cringed, I felt it. Dr. Mark Hyman is the wonderful man whose been filling our bookstores and e-readers with reads like “Eat Fat, Get Thin”, and “10 Day Diet Detox”. Guys, we have a liver and it detoxes our bodies on its own everyday!!! I’ve been saying this from DAY ONE. Okay, so I’ll cut my rant short and conclude by saying that the claims made by Dr. Mark Hyman are not always, and not usually, backed by science. Oh, and he also co-hosts on the show Dr. Oz. Dr. Oz is repeatedly sued for making false health claims but he often gets away with it by claiming his show is for entertainment, not health advice. Nice save, Oz. So does Dr. Mark Hyman follow the same principle – he’s just trying to entertain us with these scary and/or hilarious “health claims”?
Bottom Line on the Truth About Glyphosate in Kids Cereal and Cancer
I think you’ve pieced it together by now that I’m siding with WHO/FAO/JECFA. If they say that the safety limit for glyphosate is 1.0 mg/kg, I’m going to stick with that until told otherwise. If you go by this standard, all of the foods you see in the EWG article that are supposedly dangerous, are actually in the safe zone, so no need to panic. However, if you’re totally freaked out by there being even a little bit of weed killer in your food, I get that. It’s a tough life. My advice to you is to put on your critical thinking hat when you’re reading these scary headlines and ask questions about the authors and how they got to their conclusions. Now, excuse me while I go pour myself a big bowl of cereal.
Contribution by RD2B Acacia Puddester
Updated on January 28th, 2020
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian (RD), regulated by the Ontario College of Dietitians. She is a mom, YouTuber, Blogger, award winning cookbook author, media coach specializing in food and nutrition influencers, and a frequent contributor to national publications like Healthline and on national broadcast TV shows.