Pesticides in baby cereals...really?

In 2018 in the UK Pesticides were found in is baby cereals, potatoes, meat, cheese and frozen smoothy fruits.

Given that everything we eat- fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat, some organic fruit and vegetables included- contain pesticides, the big question is: are pesticides in food really that bad? 

In the UK our government publish data three times year listing foods that are found to contain pesticides over the maximum residue level, and each time they find some foods that exceed this level.

Firstly, let’s cover what the definition of a Pesticide.

A pesticide is defined under the Food and Environment Protection Act (1985) as “any substance, preparation or organism prepared or used for destroying any pest”.

Pesticides include herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, molluscicides, rodenticides, growth regulators and masonry and timber preservatives.


What about eating organic?

If you buy organic fruit and veg the chances of eating something with pesticides is low. That’s not to say that pesticides can’t get into the fruit and veg- they can either through water, leaching of chemicals into the soil, or illegal use of pesticides, which is rare.

In 2018 the results from organic foods sampled in the UK showed only one sample of baby cereal and one sample of cheese to have traces of pesticides. All fruit and veg sampled were clear.

Backing this up, but slightly out of date, a study cited in the WHO 2010 report on pesticides showed conclusively that the slightest pesticide contamination occurred in organic production – in this case the percentage of such samples was more than three times lower than in conventional production. food

So, what is the maximum residue level and if it is exceeded what does that mean?

A maximum residue level (MRL) is the highest level of an agricultural compound residue that is allowed in food. Residue levels in food must not exceed the relevant MRL. 

Maximum Residue Levels for Agricultural Compounds is usually 0.1 mg/kg but this number varies and some reports I read for the UK quoted MRL’s up to 2.0 mg/kg and as low as 0.01mg/kg.

Interestingly lots of fruit and veg have pesticide levels 20 times above the MRL. Here a link to the data if you’re interested:

Some agricultural sites reference studies where levels of pesticide were a lot higher than the MRL and yet no harm came to mice given foods containing these high levels of pesticides. All reports on harm refer to short-term affects.

A common statement in the Uk.Gov report is: “ Following the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)'s risk assessment, we do not expect these residues of pesticides to have an effect on health, either separately or in combination. “

This was stated after each report on fruit, vegetable or meat that contained multiple pesticides above the MRL- not exactly reassuring to me.

So what are the potential side-effects of pesticides in our food?

  • Infertillity, due to sperm being affected by pesticides.

  • Low Iodine level in children causing thyroid disease

  • build-up of pesticides in fat tissue over time. The affect of this is unknown

  • decrease in the diversity of our microbiome ( The bacteria in our gut)

The main pesticide found to be high in the UK.Gov reports was chlorate.

Chlorate finds its way into our water systems from chlorine disinfectants which are still widely used.

Water itself is treated with chlorine.

Interestingly and in contrast to our legislation in the UK, in the EU ( link: a meeting of the meeting of the heads of national food safety agencies (HoA) on 23 May 2017 in Oslo met to reduce humans’ exposure to chlorate:

This action plan consisted of :

  • Setting a chlorate maximum level in drinking water

  • Recommending good food hygiene practices in order to reduce chlorate coming from chlorinated disinfectants

  • Setting MRLs for chlorate in regular food at levels based on occurrence data

  • Maintaining the MRLs for foods intended to infants and young children at 0.01 mg/kg


This came about because The European Food & safety association found that the levels of chlorate in drinking water and foods was too high and could affect how we absorb iodine.  In particular iodine if important for growing children and anyone with thyroid ( a gland in the neck) disease.

In summary

The concerning characteristic of pesticides is that they accumulate in our fat and can affect our health- causing thyroid disease, infertility.

Each year 140,000 tones of pesticides are sprayed onto crops in the EU. Most affected crops are potatoes, grapes and citrus fruits.

Meat and cheese do not escape the taste of pesticides, always worth bearing in mind.

Organic foods are much less likely to contain pesticides.

Reduce your use of household cleaning agents such as bleach- there are alternatives.

Wash your fruit and veg well, this at least takes away any surface lying pesticides.

Eat whole foods, that you clean and cut yourself- everything processed is at risk of the machines it is processed in, and residues of cleaning agents that have not been rinsed well enough make it into your processed food.