Glyphosate in Food: What You Should Know

Glyphosate in food kid eating breakfast

If you saw the recent EWG reports that the herbicide glyphosate causes cancer and is lurking in your Cheerios, granola bars, and oatmeal, you probably had one of the following reactions:

“OMG, I’m being poisoned! This is terrible!”

OR

“Whatever, it’s just exaggerated, no way are my Cheerios giving me cancer.”

OR 

“What does it actually mean?”

Well, if  you’re like me and are wondering what the deal really is, I’ve got your back. And if you’re in either of the other two camps, this will help you too – because neither panic nor apathy help anyone.

Let’s take a practical and objective look at what the EWG studies really mean, and how concerned we should be about glyphosate in our food shall we?

EWG’s Glyphosate Food Testing

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report in August that suggested high levels of glyphosate was found in oat-based products like granola, instant oats, Cheerios, granola bars, and whole oats. In October, it followed up with similar results from further testing of Quaker Oats and Cheerios products marketed to kids.

Both reports found that conventional (non-organic) products contained higher levels of glyphosate than what EWG scientists deem safe for children.

Which begs the question: does that really matter, when levels meet EPA and Health Canada guidelines, as well as the stricter State of California limits?

It’s hard to tell from the EWG reports because, like most of their materials, they were written to pull at all the emotional strings possible. Don’t get me wrong, I love the work that EWG does, but the drama in the articles is a bit over the top!

The limits determined by EWG are intended to provide a safety factor over and above what regulatory bodies account for, particularly for children. This graphic from EWG gives you a good indication of how the EWG limits compare to others in the US:

 

Credit: EWG

What About Canadian Exposures?

In 2017, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency detected traces of glyphosate in almost 30% of food products it tested. Of these, 1.3% exceeded Health Canada’s Maximum Residue Limits, most of which were grain products. 

Since we’re on the topic of oats, the Health Canada Maximum is 15ppm (EWG’s benchmark is 0.16ppm). For food overall, Health Canada’s limits vary depending on the food, and ranges from less than 1 to over 20ppm.

Does Glyphosate Cause Cancer?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization, declared glyphosate a “probable human carcinogen” based on mainly agricultural exposures and some animal testing evidence.

There is a slew of reports out there attacking the IARC designation. The IARC maintains that these attacks are industry funded, and has published many a-rebuttal holding fast to their classification.

Conversely, the WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations concluded in 2016 that glyphosate may be carcinogenic in mice at very high doses, but is unlikely to cause cancer in humans through dietary exposures. The EU isn’t overly concerned either, for the record.

And of course there’s a tonne of opinion pieces on both sides of the argument.

You will find just as many convincing articles that it causes cancer as those that say it doesn’t. Yah, science is great, but it can leave a lot of room for interpretation – especially when we’re looking at complex studies like long-term, low-dose exposure testing.

More than Cancer

While the amount of glyphosate in a single bowl of instant oatmeal or Cheerios is a drop in the bucket, it is contributing to our overall body burden. Our body burden is the total accumulation of toxins and stressors in our bodies, and it isn’t taken into account when governments set exposure limits.

The other thing to consider is that while we may be exposed to only small amounts in our breakfast, glyphosate is the active ingredient in the most widely used pesticide in Canada and the US. So the cumulative effects of this herbicide are significant.

Frequent exposure to high doses in pregnant rats has been linked to developmental and reproductive issues of the offspring. Further studies have shown that the effects of glyphosate are less than when it’s combined with other ingredients in the finished Roundup product.

Speaking of Roundup, if you’re concerned about GMOs, most crops sprayed with Roundup are genetically modified to withstand the herbicide.

Finally, an increasing practice is to spray crops with glyphosate right before harvesting to speed up drying time. One MIT researcher thinks there may be a link between the increase in celiac disease and this practice.

What You Should Do

First of all, you should not panic. Despite language used in some articles, it’s not a “hefty dose” we’re talking about. So even if you’ve been feeding your kids Cheerios since they could gum them into a paste, I want you to remember my go-to mantra from Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”

So, if all of this is making you want to rethink your glyphosate intake (and I think you should), here’s some food for thought (see what I did there?):

  • If you consume a lot of oat and wheat-based products, consider switching at least some out for certified organic varieties, as the EWG testing shows lower levels of glyphosate in organic products.
  • Opt for organic “dirty dozen” produce where possible.
  • Filter your drinking water to further reduce pesticide exposure.
  • Lower your overall body burden  – you can start by detoxing your cleaners or body care products.

There you have it! I hope this helped you sort through all the clutter and hype about glyphosate. New studies come out all the time, so I’m sure we’ll keep learning more. Until then, I will subscribe to the precautionary principle and choose organic grains where possible.

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