Rethinking Cereal and Oatmeal: The Risks of Chlormequat in Oat-Based Cereals


A recent study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., has sparked concerns regarding the presence of chlormequat, a pesticide, in oat-based food products such as Cheerios and Quaker Oats.

Released in May 2023, the study discovered detectable levels of chlormequat in 92% of nonorganic oat-based foods tested.

According to the Vice President of EWG, Olga Naidenko, laboratory animal studies have shown that chlormequat can potentially harm fetal growth and development, as well as damage the reproductive system. Consequently, decreased fertility is among the risks highlighted in the EWG report.

While it remains unproven whether chlormequat affects humans in the same manner as observed in lab animals, alternative studies have indicated no adverse impact on reproductive function in pigs or mice, nor any effect on fertilization rates in mice.

Despite these conflicting findings, the EWG continues to advocate for the purchase of organic oat products as a safer alternative. By law, certified organic oats are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides.

Leading companies in the cereal industry, such as General Mills (maker of Cheerios) and PepsiCo (owner of Quaker Oats), have yet to respond to requests for comment.

Charles Benbrook, a scientific consultant specializing in pesticides, emphasizes the importance of avoiding chlormequat for families with children or those planning to start a family, dubbing it an unsafe product.

The EWG’s recommendation to opt for organic oat products has also been supported by experts who were consulted on the matter.

The Risks of Chlormequat in Oat-Based Cereals

As a scientific consultant specializing in pesticides, Charles Benbrook understands the importance of choosing healthy food options. He himself is an oatmeal eater who prefers organic oatmeal whenever possible. When it comes to chlormequat, however, Benbrook strongly advises against its consumption, stating, “It’s not a safe product.” He believes that any family with children or those planning to start a family should take all precautions necessary to avoid chlormequat.

Melissa Furlong, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences, confirms that chlormequat is not the only pesticide present in oat-based cereals. While there is still much to learn about the exact health effects of this substance on humans, Furlong acknowledges that it may not be the most harmful pesticide. She emphasizes that more research is needed in this area.

Although chlormequat has not been approved for use on food crops grown in the U.S., it can still be found in oats and oat products imported from other countries. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began allowing the importation of such products during the Trump administration, as noted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Currently, the EPA is considering approving chlormequat for use on crops grown within the U.S., despite lacking immediate response to inquiries for comment.

While Furlong typically opts for organic oat products, she admits that she may occasionally purchase non-organic options like Cheerios. This demonstrates a flexible approach to her own purchasing habits.

It is crucial for consumers to be aware of the risks associated with chlormequat in oat-based cereals and make informed decisions while considering their own health and the health of their families. As the debate continues, further research will shed light on the true extent of the risks involved.

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