Once called "safer than aspirin," glyphosate's reputation for safety isn't holding up to the scrutiny of independent research. More and more non-industry-funded scientists are finding links between the chemical and all sorts of problems, including cell death, birth defects, miscarriage, low sperm counts, DNA damage, and more recently, destruction of gut bacteria.
Here's the quick backstory: Since chemical companies invented genetically engineered seeds designed to withstand heavy sprayings of glyphosate, global use of Roundup and related weed killers has jumped to nearly 900 million pounds applied annually. Glyphosate is a systemic chemical, meaning once sprayed, it travels up inside of the plants that people and animals eat. As more farm fields converted to GMO crops, federal regulators quietly increased the levels of Roundup allowed in your food, something that could be particularly tragic for your gut.
Citing recent studies, review coauthor Stephanie Seneff, PhD, senior research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, explains how glyphosate acts as a potent bacteria-killer in the gut, wiping out delicate beneficial microflora that help protect us from disease.
Harmful pathogens like Clostridium botulinum, Salmonella, and E. coli are able to survive glyphosate in the gut, but the "good guys" in your digestive tract, protective microorganisms, bacillus and lactobacillus, for instance, are killed off.
Even the developer of Roundup—Monsanto—seems to know this. About 10 years ago, the company registered a patent for glyphosate's use as an antimicrobial agent.
Eating food laced with Roundup could be setting us up for some major health problems, some researchers suggest, citing that power to kill gut flora. "When you disturb something in nature, there aren't any voids," explains retired pathologist and veteran glyphosate researcher Don Huber, PhD, professor emeritus at Purdue University. "You take the good guys out and the bad guys rule. And that's what's happening."
Read More: 9 Crazy Things Pesticides Are Doing to Your Body
This nightmare in your digestive tract can spark other problems, including "leaky gut," where the protective lining of the gut is compromised, allowing for toxins and bacteria to enter the bloodstream. This causes the body to send off an immune response to attack the wayward bacteria, potentially sparking autoimmune diseases.
But there's more to the glyphosate-gut conundrum "The most important piece of the story is the disruption of serotonin in the gut," says Seneff. She says glyphosate can disrupt the gut's ability to create tryptophan, the building block of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter linked to happiness and well-being. Low serotonin levels have been linked to suicide, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other ailments.
Not only is glyphosate hampering tryptophan production in your gut, but it's also lowering levels in plants, causing even more deficiency, Seneff says.
Other scientists say the latest research could help frame new studies. "It is a very broad, comprehensive, thoroughly researched paper, and is an important paper in many respects because it suggests many testable hypotheses," says Warren Porter, PhD, professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "It is also consistent with some new state-of-the-art work we have been doing on domestic animals."
While the latest review study is valid, it also makes big leaps in terms of connecting the dots, according to some researchers who say the new ideas presented in the analysis will need to be tested in future studies. "As a thought piece to stimulate thinking, it serves a useful function, but should not be used as 'proof' of problem," explains Charles Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Not willing to be a human guinea pig as the science of glyphosate safety plays out? Here's how to make sure your meals aren't laced with the common chemical:
• Choose organic. Roundup and other chemical pesticides and fertilizers are banned for use in organic agriculture. Instead, organic farmers focus on building healthy soil to support the growth of healthy plants. To find local sustainable farmers, search LocalHarvest.org.
• Demand GMO labeling. Since most GMOs currently approved—and ones in the development pipeline—are designed to tolerate chemicals sprayings (the same companies sell the seeds and the chemicals), labeling GMOs can help us make more informed choices as consumers.
• Eat fewer processed foods. The main glyphosate-laden foods that wind up in the food supply are corn, soy, and canola. Since these ingredients readily wind up in about 80 percent of processed foods, eating more whole foods (or choosing organic processed foods) can help lower your exposure to the chemical.