You sit down with a bowl of Cheerios and you think you’re starting your day with a healthy breakfast, right? Well, it may not be that simple.
Cheerios and many other cereals and grain-based products contain small amounts of an herbicide called glyphosate. It’s one of the main ingredients in the widely used weed killer Roundup, and it’s been the subject of considerable debate among health experts about whether it is carcinogenic.
So does that mean Cheerios cause cancer? There’s no definitive proof. Some regulatory agencies contend that the levels of glyphosate in the popular cereal are too low to be a health risk.
However, other organizations, including the Environmental Working Group (EWG), maintain that glyphosate levels in Cheerios continue to be above safe levels.
You won’t find glyphosate listed among the ingredients on Cheerios or any food product. Scientists know it’s there by testing foods for traces of herbicides and pesticides. They measure the level of glyphosate and other toxins in parts per billion (ppb).
The EWG found that levels of glyphosate in Cheerios were 729 ppb and in Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch the levels reached 833 ppb. The EWG considers 160 ppb to be the highest level safe for children’s food.
Even with glyphosate levels that are much higher than the EWG’s maximum recommended amount, it’s not entirely clear whether Cheerios actually poses a cancer risk. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on the other hand, has determined that glyphosate is “unlikely to be human carcinogen.” The
As a result, two of the main regulatory bodies concerned with consumer product safety have determined that foods that contain trace amounts of glyphosate residue are unlikely to cause cancer when eaten in normal amounts.
However, experts warn that there’s a need for research on the health effects of glyphosate that’s completely free from industry support.
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In 2020, Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios were recalled, but not because of glyphosate. General Mills, the company that makes Cheerios and other popular breakfast cereals, issued a recall of the cereals produced at its Lodi, California, site because wheat flour was found in the products that were labeled as gluten-free.
For people with wheat sensitivities or celiac disease, having faith that products labeled “gluten-free” are indeed free of gluten is critical to avoiding digestive symptoms and other health complications.
Despite the extensive media coverage and concern from public health advocates, products containing glyphosate have not been subject to a recall — at least not because of the herbicide itself.
In 2000, the EPA announced a voluntary consumer product safety recall for two product container problems. The products were Monsanto’s Roundup Ready-to-Use Weed and Grass Killer and Scotts Ortho Ready-to-Use Home Defense Indoor & Outdoor Insect Killer5.
They were sold in Pull ‘N Spray containers with a T-handle pump and application wand that didn’t always work properly and exposed the users directly to the herbicide and pesticide within the containers.
Glyphosate is an herbicide first approved for use in 1974. It has since become one of the most commonly used herbicides in the United States. It’s used in industrial products farmers apply to crops, as well as products, such as Roundup for homeowners to use to get rid of weeds in lawns and gardens.
Because farmers spray the herbicide on oat crops, some of it may remain on the grains as they are processed into Cheerios and other products. The EWG noted that in addition to Cheerios, higher levels of glyphosate were found on General Mills products such as Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars.
Researchers at Oregon State University note that while research on glyphosate’s cancer risks has led to mixed findings, when the chemical is ingested it is digested and expelled from the body in urine and stool quickly. And it does not appear that there are long-term health impacts to the immune or nervous systems either.
Glyphosate is the main chemical of concern with Cheerios. If you want to cut down the risk of ingesting glyphosate or other dangerous herbicides, such as paraquat, look for products labeled organic and made with ingredients that weren’t exposed to certain herbicides and pesticides including glyphosate.
General Mills hasn’t banned its farmers from using glyphosate, but in 2019 announced that it is encouraging them to find safer, alternative methods of protecting their crops.
Kellogg Company, however, announced in early 2020 that it planned to phase out the use of glyphosate in its products by the end of 2025. Kellogg is the maker of cereals such as Mini-Wheats and Special K.
Every year, the EWG releases its list of the “Dirty Dozen” foods that are among the highest in pesticides and herbicides. The foods that typically make the list are nonorganic strawberries, apples, and other thin-skinned produce.
If you’re concerned about your exposure to glyphosate and other herbicides and pesticides, check out the EWG’s “Clean 15” list of fruits and vegetables that tend to have the lowest levels of chemical toxins.
Healthy breakfast alternatives
You have plenty of options other than Cheerios and breakfast cereals with which to start your day. Healthy breakfasts can include the following:
- Eggs. An excellent source of protein, eggs contain other nutrients, including choline and lutein.
- Oatmeal. When made from steel cut oats, which retain most of the whole grain, oatmeal is rich in fiber and more nutritious than processed oatmeal products.
- Greek yogurt. Also a solid source of protein, Greek yogurt is also high in calcium and B vitamins.
- Berries. An excellent source of fiber and immune-boosting antioxidants, berries are a delicious way to start your day.
The breakfast cereal Cheerios has been found to contain trace amounts of a widely used herbicide called glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in the weed killer Roundup.
The EWG contends that glyphosate may raise the risk of cancer, while other organizations say there isn’t evidence yet that the chemical is carcinogenic, especially in the levels found in packaged food.
The agencies that oversee food safety in the United States have not recommended against the consumption of Cheerios or demanded the cereal be recalled or banned from store shelves. However, some organizations that test food for safety have raised concerns that the glyphosate levels in Cheerios may be higher than acceptable limits.
The choice of whether to eat Cheerios and other breakfast cereals is up to you — but remember you do have many other healthy options for the first meal of the day.