We constantly hear about toxins in our environment – through pollution, within our personal care products, makeup, plastics, fragrances, the list goes on. We have seen a massive shift in companies promoting “safer” products to dispel growing concerns about chemical exposure in the products we use daily.
But when it comes to our food supply – we don’t always think about chemical toxins. As society has shifted to large-scale farming and global agriculture, we have become more detached from our food system than ever. We don’t fully understand where our food comes from, how it’s produced, or what goes on “behind the scenes” in industrial agriculture.
Back in the day, local farmers were a part of community and culture. You knew the families that grew your food, the cows that produced your fresh milk, and the produce that was grown directly on the local farm. During the spark of the population boom, the global population grew from 1.6 billion to 7 billion from 1900 to 2011, which contributed to a radical shift to industrial agriculture and farms were tasked with keeping up with the growing population.
Flash forward to 2022, and it’s quite a different story. To no fault of our own, we have become incredibly disconnected from our food supply, and slippery regulations around food additives and food quality have made it easy for large-scale factory farms to sneak chemicals and additives into our food. To no fault of the farmers, we dually live in a world where the production of fresh produce is heavily under-subsidized and in order to keep up with supply and demand, chemical additives are often added to increase the rate of farming production and prevent crop die off.
Cue Glyphosate…You’ve heard of it, but what exactly is it?
Glyphosate glycine is a chemical used in agriculture to kill off unwanted weeds while sparing the growing crops. Glyphosate is classified as a post-emergent herbicide, meaning that it is sprayed after the weeds emerge by disrupting EPSP synthase, an enzyme found in both plants and microorganisms like bacteria
1. Glyphosate use has increased exponentially since it was first introduced in 1974 from about 3400 tons per year to about 825,000 tons per year in 2014, with use in over 140 countries; glyphosate is the most common herbicide used in the United States
2. Glyphosate and its metabolites, or the products that result after use and breakdown, can be found in soil, air, and groundwater. Produce is genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate while weeds are not, so glyphosate is sprayed indiscriminately on weeds and food products alike.
Is Glyphosate Safe for Consumption?
There is a lot of discussion regarding the safety of the products glyphosate is used on. Here is what we know right now:
Glyphosate use is highly controversial. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that "glyphosate is not a carcinogen, and there are no risks to public health," the International Agency for Research On Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have declared glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic" resulting in discontinued use in multiple countries (3, 4). So what’s the real story?
Both animals and humans have complex gut systems composed of bacterial colonies that are strongly linked to digestion, immunity, brain health, and much more. Animal studies using very high doses of glyphosate have demonstrated that the beneficial bacteria in the gut appears to be sensitive to glyphosate while harmful bacteria seems to be resistant. This leads to a condition called "microbial dysbiosis," which is when the makeup of the bacterial colonies becomes unbalanced, which inhibits the growth of diverse organisms that support optimal gut function (4).
Now Let’s Talk Data…Areas of ongoing research
To further unbox the ongoing debate about concerns over glyphosate safety, we can look to the research:
An 18-week trial using roosters found that feed supplementation with humic acid, a substance found in decaying plants, soil, lake deposits, resulted in improved reproductive health of the roosters while supplementation with glyphosate containing RoundUp® had an adverse influence on reproductive health. It is hypothesized that these results are attributed to the fact that humic acid may neutralize and absorb glyphosate (5).
As glyphosate use grows in popularity and the uncertainty regarding the safety of exposure increases, more energy is being invested into research on this topic, specifically regarding preventative measures and post-exposure measures. Some areas of research have generated interesting results:
Researchers are investigating the connection between non-celiac gluten intolerance and glyphosate exposure; the hypothesis is based on the following:
1. Glyphosate has been shown to inhibit the cytochrome P540 enzyme in plants (6);
2. Those with Celiac disease have impaired P540 enzymes, resulting in nutrient deficiencies (6);
3. Fish exposed to glyphosate have been shown to experience digestive issues similar to Celiac disease (6).
One review study suggested that probiotics demonstrate promise as a countermeasure against consistent glyphosate exposure by producing a supporting beneficial bacteria that produce hydrolytic enzymes that degrade pesticides (7). Current research using human gastrointestinal bacteria is ongoing (8).
Generally Good Practices To Limit Glyphosate Exposure and Keep Yourself Safe
When possible, buy organic produce since organic produce explicitly prohibits the use of glyphosate and other pesticides.
Wash your produce thoroughly, removing dirt, particle pesticides, and microbes. If you live near a farm that uses glyphosate, consider staying indoors during days that glyphosate is being applied.
Talk to your registered dietitian or primary care physician about any symptoms or concerns, or if you are considering supplementation.
Eat a balanced, varied diet to support gut health.
At the end of the day, we cannot avoid all chemical exposure in food. As consumers, it is important to educate ourselves on best practices to protect our bodies from overexposure. That said, it is always more important to adhere to a healthy diet comprised of diverse sources of greens, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, than to avoid foods due to fear of exposure. Our bodies have our backs and can tolerate these chemicals in small doses. However, it is always important to practice autonomy over our food choices and limit our exposure to chemical additives by adhering to these best practices.