Staff Columnist

Hold off on dumping your oatmeal

New report on chemicals in cereal needs more context

Box at the left is a Quaker Oats oatmeal box from many years ago, preserved at the plant in Cedar Rapids. At right is the modern design used today. Gazette photo by Tom Merryman published 5-24-1981 Gazette archive photo
Box at the left is a Quaker Oats oatmeal box from many years ago, preserved at the plant in Cedar Rapids. At right is the modern design used today. Gazette photo by Tom Merryman published 5-24-1981 Gazette archive photo

It has all the makings of diabolical conspiracy — poison hidden in your children’s breakfast cereal, slowly giving them cancer, and the evil corporations are to blame.

A report published this month says glyphosate, an active ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup, can be found in a wide variety of breakfast cereals and granola bars. That finding comes from the Environmental Working Group, which does education and advocacy about health risks in consumer products.

Roundup is produced by the agriculture tech company Monsanto, which has often been targeted by environmentalists and food activists. If it’s designed to kill weeds, it must be bad for your toddler, right? Not necessarily.

Most of the conventionally grown oats tested had significant levels of the chemical found in Roundup, the Environmental Working Group claimed. And even some oats sold with organic labels had detectable glyphosate, though it tended to be less than in conventional products.

Products from Quaker Oats, which has operations in Cedar Rapids, had among the highest concentrations of glyphosate. The company’s “Old Fashioned Oats” were rated at 930 parts per billion, and its brown sugar “Dinosaur Eggs” were rated 700 parts per billion.

That may sound scary, but it’s not. Quaker Oats issued a statement noting glyphosate is regularly used in the agriculture industry, and the levels found in its cereal are safely within government standards. While Environmental Working Group researchers say those amounts of glyphosate are unsafe, that does not represent a scientific consensus.

The World Health Organization and California regulators have classified glyphosate as a cancer-causing substance, but the danger depends on the concentration. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration set limits for glyphosate levels in food measured in parts per million, meaning allowable levels are many times higher than the hundreds of parts per billion found reportedly found in your morning meal.

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The cereal report’s exposure was boosted when it happened to coincide with a high-profile court case against Monsanto. A court in California found a school groundskeeper’s cancer was linked to his exposure to glyphosate, with a jury awarding him nearly $300 million. That case may raise legitimate concerns about worker safety and direct contact with agricultural chemicals, but the relatively tiny amounts found in breakfast food are a different issue altogether.

Many of the information sources sounding the alarm about glyphosate in our food are the same organizations which use questionable science to promote paranoia on other issues.

The group behind the recent cereal study, for example, believes the genetically engineered foods are unnecessary and unsafe. In 2004, they published a study linking vaccines to autism in children. Environmental Working Group is also skeptical of cellphones, recommends sunscreen should be a “last resort,” and wants to ban some kinds of makeup.

A healthy and rigorous scientific dialogue requires naysayers like them. Still, you may want to consult several sources before you swear off oatmeal.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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