What to Know About the Chemical Found in Cheerios and Quaker Oats

Deciding what to eat for breakfast just got a little more complicated. A pesticide known as chlormequat, which is linked to reproductive and puberty issues, was found in some of America's favorite cereals, including Cheerios, Quaker Oats, and other oat-based foods.

Chlormequat is a plant growth regulator that prevents grain crops from bending over, which can make the harvesting process more difficult, according to the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology. The chemical is most commonly used on food crops like wheat, oats, and barley and is approved for use in Europe, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but it is not approved for use on edible plants in the United States. However, since 2018, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has allowed for the importation of foods treated with chlormequat.

More research is needed to determine the exact impact of the chemical on humans, but chlormequat has been linked to reproductive issues, disrupted fetal growth, and reduced sperm motility in animals, says Laura Purdy, MD, a board-certified family-medicine physician. "The primary concern here is exposure over time and its effect on health, wellness, and fertility as we learn more," she explains.

Here's what you need to know about the pesticide found in cereal and how to stay safe.

What to Know About the Chemical in Cheerios and Quaker Oats

A chemical known as chlormequat was detected in 77 of 96 urine samples taken from 2017 to 2023 in the US, with levels increasing within the last year, according to research published last week in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology. In other words, of those tested, 80 percent had chlormequat in their systems. Furthermore, chlormequat was found in 92 percent of oat-based foods sold in May 2023, including Quaker Oats and Cheerios.

As mentioned earlier, previous findings show the pesticide can cause reproductive issues, disrupted fetal growth, and reduced sperm motility in animals (mammals specifically, like rats and mice). As a result, Dr. Purdy says research suggests there is a cause for concern as to how the chemical effects, and potentially harms, humans in the long-term, but more research is needed. The recent study out of the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology is the first in the US to look for the presence of chlormequat in humans.

Which Other Cereals Contain Chlormequat?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested several brands for the presence of chlormequat, and the chemical was found in the following:

  • General Mills products including Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, Cheerios Oat Crunch Oats n' Honey, and Frosted Cheerios
  • Quaker Oats products including instant oatmeal, oatmeal, granola bars, and Old Fashioned Oats
  • Generic store-brand granola and cereals, including those at Walmart (Great Value Oats & Honey Granola) and Target (Good & Gather French Vanilla Almond Granola)

That said, Mollie Wulff, a spokesperson for General Mills, told USA TODAY, "All our products adhere to all regulatory requirements. Food safety is always our top priority at General Mills, and we take care to ensure our food is prepared and packaged in the safest way possible."

PepsiCo, which owns Quaker Oats, also guarantees the safety of its products, telling CBS News, "We have a comprehensive food safety management system in place. We adhere to all regulatory guidelines to ensure the safest, highest quality products for our consumers."

How to Avoid Pesticides in Cereal

Chlormequat was found in both traditional and organic oat-based foods, though organic products had a lower detection rate, with only one out of seven organic samples containing the pesticide.

To reduce your risk of chlormequat exposure, the EWG recommends choosing products made with organic oats that are grown without synthetic pesticides. Dr. Purdy agrees and says that purchasing organic cereal, oatmeal, granola, and oats is best to minimize your exposure to pesticides, but if you're worried about your health or have specific concerns about the foods you're eating, always talk with your doctor.