Rolling out of bed, heading to the kitchen, grabbing a bowl and filling it with cereal — it’s the morning routine for countless people around the world. But some of your favorite brands have a dark secret, one ingredient amongst all the rest that can be seriously damaging to your health.
It’s no secret that people love cereal — and they eat it for more than just breakfast. Nine out of 10 respondents to a 2017 survey did, indeed, confirm that they would enjoy a bowl as part of their morning meal. But a surprising 43 percent of people also said they’d eat it as a snack, as well.
The public has their clear favorites when it comes to cereal types, too. The best-selling brand, as of March 2018, was Honey Nut Cheerios. The sweet o-shaped cereal brought in a whopping $656 billion for parent company General Mills the year before. Other favorites included Post’s Honey Bunches of Oats and Frosted Flakes, a classic from Kellogg’s.
These brands often mix up the longtime favorites with fun flavors and surprising new ingredients, too. Perhaps you might find a box of Cheerios infused with peanut butter or chocolate. Even Fruit Loops represent a deviation from the norm — the colorful rings have a sweet, fruit-inspired taste, unlike more traditional cereal recipes.
As a consumer — and cereal eater — you’re sure to enjoy these twists on a breakfast standby. But as you peruse the grocery-store aisles to pick up your next box of morning grains, don’t just look for a fun new flavor. You should also find out if your cereal is safe for you and your family to eat.
The Environmental Working Group’s Children’s Health Initiative has pinpointed a questionable ingredient contained in a slew of cereals. This compound has links to serious, life-altering disease. And yet, a series of studies in 2018 revealed there to be trace amounts of it in several morning favorites — perhaps it’s in your go-to cereal, too.
Cereal has long been a morning-time staple, but it didn’t always come from a colorful, shelf-friendly box. It all started at the beginning of the colonial era, when workers and farmers woke up early to begin their labor. Lunch was the day’s main hot meal, but people did eat breakfast — cornmeal mush or leftovers, mostly.
Things changed when the Industrial Revolution began and most people shifted to urban, factory-centric lifestyles. They couldn’t come home to eat in the middle of the day, so dinner became more formal. At the same time, new foods became associated with breakfast — gentler meals that wouldn’t cause indigestion, like much of the food served during the agrarian era.
So, whole wheat became a breakfast staple — and, from there, people saw the popularity of cereal rise. Nowadays, people still reach for cereals of all kinds, although experts recommend we eat the healthier versions of those offered on store shelves. And whole-grain cereals, oatmeal, muesli and other natural options provide a variety of health benefits.
One major benefit of eating whole grain cereal is that it contains fiber, a vital element in the digestive process. It also makes food more filling and keeps us feeling satiated for longer. So, when someone’s trying to lose weight, following a fiber-rich diet is a great way to do it.
Research has shown that the whole grains found in cereal also can lower a person’s risk of developing heart disease, the leading cause of death across the world. That’s due in part to the fact that high-fiber diets can help a person side-step obesity by losing weight.
Losing weight with a high-fiber diet can also help a person avoid diabetes, which often develops in tandem with obesity, too. But it’s not just fiber that makes whole-grain cereal good for you. They also provide us with B vitamins, niacin, folate and thiamine, as well as minerals — magnesium, iron, manganese and zinc included.
Today’s cereals feature these feel-good compounds, too, thanks to fortification by their manufacturers. Certain brands will also contain ample amounts of protein or calcium — as much as you’d find in an egg or a pot of yogurt, respectively. If you choose a well-balanced cereal, it makes for a great breakfast.
However, not all breakfast cereals are created equal — and experts from the Environmental Working Group set out to prove it in a series of studies. For more than 20 years, the EWG has maintained a simple mission: to help people lead their healthiest possible lives in an environment that’s equally beneficial.
In October 2016, with the help of Jonas Philanthropies, the EWG began a focused venture: the Jonas Initiative for Children’s Environmental Health. Through this arm of their organization, the EWG hoped to set new safety standards and regulations for pollutants in our air, water and food so that children could grow up safely.
EWG founder Ken Cook lauded the collaboration at the time. In a press release, he explained the importance of it further, saying, “The mounting evidence connecting children’s exposures to environmental contaminants and serious, life-altering health problems continues to grow.” But their focused work could uncover “new, groundbreaking approaches that will help protect all children from polluted environments.”
Their work thus far has highlighted lags in the food industry that affect the youngest generation. And one of focuses for the Initiative for Children’s Environmental Health has been cereal. Indeed, Americans consume quite a bit of the breakfast staple — the average person eats 14 pounds per year, and the U.S. population purchases nearly 3 billion boxes annually.
For children, specifically, though, the EWG wondered if cereal was the safest choice for their breakfast. What worried the experts weren’t the health benefits purported to come with cereal — the aforementioned goodness of whole grains wasn’t up for debate. It was what other ingredients cereals cntained.
Cereal makers require massive supplies of soybean and corn to make their various brands. And to ensure they have enough of all of their crops, many rely on Roundup and other herbicides to keep fields weed-free. The U.S. sprays a over a million pounds of pesticides onto crops every year.
Even though many of us are aware of the use of herbicides and pesticides on crops, we may not realize that some of these substances could end up on our plates. And while we might assume that the compounds present in our fruits, vegetables and even cereal are safe to eat, the EWG set out to uncover the truth.
In 2018 the EWG’s Children’s Health Initiative released the first round of its tests on 45 products made of oats grown in the traditional manner. Of those samples, 43 contained traces of glyphosate, a poison used in herbicides that can have serious health consequences, according to the World Health Organization.
Farmers have a good reason to use glyphosate on their crops, especially oats. Aside from killing weeds, the herbicide dries out the plants, which make them easier to harvest and transform into breakfast food. However, because it’s so commonly used, it’s likely to end up in people’s food — even cereals aimed at children.
Glyphosate has developed a bad reputation due to the affects it has on those who are exposed to it. The compound has been the cause of multiple lawsuits in which claimants said that the herbicide caused cancer. In one case, a jury awarded $2 billion to a group who had linked their diagnoses to the glyphosate in the most widely used herbicide in the United States, Roundup.
Children are particularly sensitive to glyphosate — much more than adults. As they grow, kids are more susceptible to carcinogens. As such, the Food Quality Protection Act suggests that children require a 10-fold margin to keep them safe from even trace levels of contaminants such as the herbicide.
With that 10-fold margin in mind, the EWG calculated that children should consume no more than 0.01 milligrams of glyphosate each day. To reach that very low threshold, a 60-gram serving of cereal would have to contain less than 160 glyphosate parts per billion. And the majority of oats tested in the study breached that number.
Since companies continue to use glyphosate as an herbicide for their crops, the EWG set their own standards for children’s safety in ingesting the compound. However, their research revealed that, of the 43 cereals that contained glyphosate, nearly 75 percent of them had surpassed the safe level for kids to eat.
Interestingly, even brands that contained organic oats still had trace amounts of glyphosate present, although they were beneath the EWG’s benchmark. This can happen if organic oats are planted in a field next to crops harvested with the help of the herbicide. Or, some grains are cross-contaminated when they reach processing facilities.
With neither regular or organic oats left uncontaminated, plenty of familiar brands and popular varieties of cereals were shown to contain glyphosate. For example, Cheerios Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal tested positive for trace amounts of the herbicide in three separate tests. While Lucky Charms showed glyphosate in two of its samples.
Other popular brands, such as Quaker, saw their classic oats fail the test. Not only did their regular oatmeal contain glyphosate, but so, too, did varieties aimed directly at children — their Quaker Dinosaur Eggs Instant Oatmeal contained the herbicide in both of the samples analyzed by the EWG.
The rest of the cereals, granola or bars to make the list came from brands including Kellogg’s, Nature Valley, KIND, Back to Nature, Bob’s Red Mill and Nature’s Path Organic. Meanwhile, some products did come through the glyphosate test scot-free: Kashi Heart to Heart Organic Honey Toasted cereal, Simple Truth Organic Instant Oatmeal and 365 Organic Old-Fashioned Rolled Oats contained no traces of the herbicide.
With all of the results considered, EWG president Ken Cook posed an important question in a 2018 press release. He said, “How many bowls of cereal and oatmeal have American kids eaten that came with a dose of weed killer? That’s a question only General Mills, PepsiCo and other food companies can answer.”
In the case of General Mills — who had 21 products that made the list — a representative for the company told CBS News in an emailed statement in 2019 that safety was a “top priority.” The company said that they were working to reduce the amount of glyphosate and other herbicides and pesticides they used.
The General Mills statement did concede that “most crops grown in fields use some form of pesticides and trace amounts are found in the majority of food we all eat.” And the cereal makers said that they kept their amounts of glyphosate beneath the levels set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
However, the EWG did not agree with this stance, according to their initial press release on the first round of cereal studies in 2018. Instead, they urged the EPA to review their evidence on glyphosate and all of the adverse health conditions that stemmed from its presence in both humans and animals.
The EWG release stated, “Glyphosate does not belong in cereal.” The environmental group also urged concerned parents to “act and urge the EPA to restrict pre-harvest applications of glyphosate and tell companies to identify and use sources of glyphosate-free oats.” The EWG also warned that the herbicide would make parents think twice about feeding cereal to their kids.
The EWG’s press release stated, “Oat-based foods are a healthy source of fiber and nutrients for children and adults, and oat consumption is linked to health benefits such as lowered cholesterol and decreased cardiovascular risk. Parents should not have to wonder whether feeding their children these healthy foods will also expose them to a pesticide that increases the risk of cancer.”
Since then, the EWG has continued on its quest to have food companies remove glyphosate from their products. In August 2020, they released another report that found the herbicide also appeared in chickpeas, lentils and other beans. That means that the compound was also present in products made from legumes, such as hummus.
In the same report, the EWG’s experts said that the public could continue eating these products in spite of the trace amounts of glyphosate. However, they also suggested that shoppers select organic options wherever possible, as they were “a much better choice” than their traditionally farmed counterparts.
One problem with the suggestion to eat organic was the fact that not all families could afford such an option, and the EWG acknowledged this in their press release. As such, the organization “[believed] it is essential for all families and communities to have resources to buy healthy foods of their choice.”
So, the EWG hoped to get rid of glyphosate from the ground up — quite literally. They concluded their August 2020 release by saying the change had to come at farm level. And anyone could make that happen, they concluded. Their press release read, “Who can accomplish this? Food manufacturers, grocery stores, lawmakers — and you, the customer and constituent.”