An environmental watchdog found traces of weed-killer in Cheerios and Nature Valley products. Here’s how worried you should be.

Cheerios could contain traces of weed-killer.

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Cheerios could contain traces of weed-killer.
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goodmoments/Shutterstock

  • A new round of tests from the Environmental Working Group found traces of the weed-killer glyphosate in 6 types of Cheerios, 14 Nature Valley products, and Fiber One’s oatmeal raisin soft-baked cookies.
  • Glyphosate has been tentatively linked to cancer, though many scientists argue that the evidence isn’t conclusive. Some of the major research pertaining to glyphosate has been mired in controversy.
  • Eating Cheerios or Nature Valley granola bars in normal doses isn’t likely to harm your health. The bigger safety concern is the spraying of weed-killers like Monsanto’s Roundup, which uses glyphosate as its active ingredient.
  • More than 13,000 plaintiffs have alleged that Roundup gave them cancer. Courts have already ruled in favor of the plaintiff in three verdicts, but it’s important to separate these cases from scientific evidence.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Cereals and oat bars generally aren’t the healthiest option for breakfast due to their high concentrations of sugar and corn starch, but there’s now reason to believe they carry traces of weed-killer.

For months, the watchdog Environmental Working Group (EWG) has been testing breakfast foods for glyphosate, the most widely used agricultural pesticide in the world.

Their latest analysis found traces of the weed-killer in 6 types of Cheerios, 14 Nature Valley products, and Fiber One’s oatmeal raisin soft-baked cookies. The company conducted two similar rounds of tests in August and October of last year, which found glyphosate in dozens of oat-based products from companies like Quaker, Kellogg’s, and General Mills.

Though the EWG is raising the alarm about these foods, we don’t yet know whether glyphosate is actually linked to cancer. As it stands, most published research has found that glyphosate isn’t a health threat at the low levels to which consumers are exposed.

Does glyphosate cause cancer?

Nature Valley's oats and honey crunchy granola bars showed glyphosate levels of 320 parts per billion.

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Nature Valley’s oats and honey crunchy granola bars showed glyphosate levels of 320 parts per billion.
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Nature Valley

The words “cancer-causing chemical” may hold an alliterative charm, but determining whether a chemical actually causes cancer is a difficult task.

Much of the evidence suggesting that glyphosate may be carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, comes from a 2015 report published by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The report gave glyphosate a “Group 2A” classification, which means it is “probably carcinogenic in humans.” The label is often used for chemicals showing strong evidence of carcinogenicity in animals, but limited evidence in humans. Other chemicals belonging to this group include acrylamide, a chemical found in burned, charred, and toasted foods.

In its analysis of more than 900 chemicals, the IARC has only classified one of them as non-carcinogenic. Five hundred more have been deemed “not classifiable” as carcinogens.

The IARC’s analysis of glyphosate has fallen under scrutiny after an extensive Reuters review found that the agency had edited parts of the material that didn’t align with its conclusion. When Business Insider spoke with Alex Lu, a Harvard environmental exposure professor, last year, Lu said the IARC was a “world-renowned and reputable” institution whose findings have benefited global cancer researchers.

But theirs was not the only study to detect a link between glyphosate and cancer.

Earlier this year, a meta-analysis from scientists at the University of California Berkeley, University of Washington, and Mount Sinai found “a compelling link” between glyphosate exposure and a cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Bayer, the company that owns Monsanto (which is behind the popular herbicide, Roundup, that uses glyphosate as the active ingredient), has called the meta-analysis “a classic case of garbage in, garbage out.” The company accused the analysis of cherry-picking data, manipulating statistics, and making unfair comparisons.

But in April the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) also said they couldn’t rule out an association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, even though most studies had not discovered a link. The ATSDR determination was put on hold for many years as Monsanto attempted to curtail its release. Court-released documents show evidence that Monsanto coordinated with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to keep the paper from going public.

“Don’t get your hopes up, I doubt EPA and [former EPA official Jess Rowland] can kill this; but it’s good to know they are going to actually make the effort now to coordinate,” Dan Jenkins, a Monsanto regulatory affairs manager, wrote in an email to his colleague.

As far as the EPA is concerned, glyphosate is not a public health risk. Their stance is backed by other regulatory agencies including the European Commission, Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency, and the World Health Organization’s International Program on Chemical Safety. A 2018 study supported by the National Cancer Institute also found no association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but it did find “some evidence” of a higher risk of leukemia among participants with the most exposure.

Further independent studies could shed light on these findings, but for now the link between glyphosate and cancer remains tenuous.

Are Cheerios and Nature Valley products safe to eat?

A baby eats Cheerios.

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A baby eats Cheerios.
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Christin Lola/Shutterstock

The EWG considers any cereal with a glyphosate level of more than 160 parts per billion to be unsafe. That threshold is nearly nearly 188 times as stringent as the legal limit for oats set by the EPA.

When Business Insider spoke with Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at the EWG, in 2018, she said it was “standard scientific practice” to enforce stricter limits for children, “since children have an increased susceptibility to cancer-causing substances.”

Having conducted his own research of pesticides in children’s diets, Lu said he believed the EWG’s safety measures were relatively conservative and that its threshold might even be “too high.”

“This is especially true for parents buying breakfast cereals for their infants and children,” said Lu, who is not affiliated with the EWG, though it has covered his findings in the past.

In the EWG’s latest round of tests, the items with the highest recorded levels of glyphosate were Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch (833 parts per billion) and Cheerios Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal (729 parts per billion). That’s far below the EPA’s legal limit for oats of 30,000 parts per billion.

When asked about the EWG’s findings, Bayer said the group “has a long history of spreading misinformation about pesticide residues.”

“Even at the highest level reported by the EWG (833 parts per billion), an adult would have to eat 158 pounds of the oat-based food every day for the rest of their life to reach the strict limits set by the EPA,” the company told Business Insider.

In a statement, General Mills – which produces Cheerios, Nature Valley, and Fiber One products – said its top priority is food safety. “Most crops grown in fields use some form of pesticides and trace amounts are found in the majority of food we all eat,” the company told Business Insider. “We continue to work closely with farmers, our suppliers, and conservation organizations to minimize the use of pesticides on the ingredients we use in our foods.”

Lawsuits are accusing Monsanto’s Roundup of giving people cancer

Plaintiff Dewayne Johnson used Roundup as a groundskeeper in a California school district. He later developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

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Plaintiff Dewayne Johnson used Roundup as a groundskeeper in a California school district. He later developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
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Josh Edelson/Reuters

While some consumers may be worried about ingesting weed-killer, the bigger concern for Bayer is the spraying of Roundup. More than 13,000 plaintiffs have filed claims against Monsanto, alleging that their use of the product gave them cancer. The overwhelming majority of these plaintiffs have claimed that Roundup causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

On May 13, a California jury ordered Monsanto to pay $2 billion in damages to a husband and wife, Alva and Alberta Pilliod, who each developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after using Roundup for 35 years. Bayer plans to appeal the verdict.

“We have great sympathy for Mr. and Mrs. Pilliod, but the evidence in this case was clear that both have long histories of illnesses known to be substantial risk factors for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” the company told Business Insider.

The Pilliod case follows two other Roundup-related verdicts.

In August 2018, a California jury ordered Monsanto to pay $78.6 million in damages to a groundskeeper, Dewayne Johnson, who attributed his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to Roundup. The judge ruled that Monsanto had intentionally withheld information about Roundup’s potential harm, but did not make any claims about whether it contributed to the plaintiff’s cancer.

A few months earlier, a federal jury ruled that Roundup was a “substantial” contributor to 70-year-old Edwin Hardeman’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis. Hardeman had used the weed-killer to tend his property for more than two decades. The jury has since ordered Monsanto to pay Hardeman $81 million for failing to warn about the the product’s risk.

The verdicts reflect the court’s decision rather than a scientific determination, but they do lend an urgency to new research. Several studies of glyphosate and cancer (typically in mice) are ongoing, and more are coming out each year.