Are Cheerios and Quaker Oats safe to eat? Experts weigh in on new pesticide concerns. 

Should you pass on that morning bowl of cereal or oatmeal?

That’s what some people may be asking in light of a study released this week by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on agricultural and chemical-safety laws in the U.S. The study looked at the prevalence of a pesticide called chlormequat in oat-based food products, including cereals like Cheerios and Quaker Oats. 

The EWG said it found detectable levels of the chemical in 92% of nonorganic oat-based foods purchased in May 2023.

“Studies in laboratory animals show that chlormequat can cause harm to the normal growth and development of the fetus and damage the reproductive system,” Olga Naidenko, vice president at the EWG, told MarketWatch. Those risks, the EWG report noted, can include reduced fertility. 

It has not been proven that the substance affects humans in the same way the studies cited by the EWG found it does lab animals, and there are other studies that have found chlormequat had no effect on reproduction in pigs or mice, or any impact on fertilization rates in mice.

The EWG is still advocating that concerned consumers buy organic oat products as an alternative, however. 

“Certified organic oats are, by law, grown without synthetic pesticides,” Naidenko said. 

Representatives for General Mills
the company that makes Cheerios, and PepsiCo
which owns Quaker Oats, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

‘Any family raising kids or thinking about starting a family should do whatever they can do to avoid chlormequat. It’s not a safe product.’

— Charles Benbrook, a scientific consultant who focuses on pesticides

The EWG’s recommendation to go organic was echoed by experts that MarketWatch contacted. 

Charles Benbrook, a scientific consultant based in Washington state who focuses on pesticides, said he’s an oatmeal eater who chooses organic oatmeal “when I can get it.”

Regarding chlormequat, Benbrook said, “It’s not a safe product.”

“Any family raising kids or thinking about starting a family should do whatever they can do to avoid chlormequat,” he said.

Melissa Furlong, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Arizona, said it’s important to note that chlormequat is not the only pesticide that is found in oat-based cereals. There’s still much we need to learn about the health effects the substance might have on humans, she added.

“That’s not to say it isn’t the worst [pesticide]. We don’t really know,” Furlong said. 

Chlormequat has not been approved for use on food crops grown in the U.S., according to the EWG, but it can be found in oats and oat products from other countries. Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency started allowing imports of such products into the U.S., the EWG noted, which is why chlormequat can be found in some cereals sold in this country.

The EPA is considering approving chlormequat for use on crops grown in the U.S., according to the agency’s website. In a call for public comment on its proposed decision, the agency said, “Based on EPA’s human health risk assessment, there are no dietary, residential, or aggregate (i.e., combined dietary and residential exposures) risks of concern.”

The EPA didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.

For her part, Furlong said that while she usually buys organic oat products, she isn’t rigid about it — and she might still buy the occasional box of Cheerios.

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