Cheerios going gluten free

by | G+ Amy Leger

gfcheeriosgraphic2Wow!  General Mills made a splash with its announcement that this summer Cheerios will be switching over to gluten free oats for its Cheerios brand of cereals.

The company made the announcement on its blog on February 11th.  Normally I like to get in on it and push the news out in a timely fashion.  Unfortunately, it posted just as as I was getting on a flight to Phoenix to see my parents and bring my daughter Grace to a soccer tournament.  And then I got a raging cold by the next morning.  Yuck to say the least. Then both my husband and I started new jobs when I returned from Arizona.  Needless to say, here I am nearly three weeks later writing about one of the biggest stories in gluten free food product news so far this year.

While I know I am a bit late, I wanted to talk about this topic and look at it with hopefully a comprehensive view from the different sides of the story, so hopefully you can make a decision for yourself whether to purchase this for you or a gluten free member of your family.

The marketing video that accompanied the announcement explains how oats are naturally gluten free but are often cross contaminated with wheat, barley and rye.  This is true.  Which is why we have to buy certified gluten-free oats.  But the video message continued, talking about people with celiac disease having trouble with these oats for that reason.  So General Mills’ video says it found a way to “sort them out so that our oats are gluten free”.

Freeze.   I just wanted to interject here. While I’m not quite sure what “sorting out” means (and we’ll get to that in a minute), I really appreciate this marketing that educates as well as promotes its product.  In a world where there is a lot of complaining about gluten free lifestyles and not much education about the people who need it (I am talking to you NASCAR Super Bowl commercial)…I found this refreshing.  Okay, back to the story….

The new gluten free Cheerios will come in five varieties, Regular, Honey Nut, Frosted, Apple Cinnamon — they only need the gluten-free oats.  The fifth product, MultiGrain, will need to be reformulated because it contains wheat.

The written portion of the General Mills blog resports, “We’ve developed a way – years in the making – to sort out the small amount of wheat, rye and barley in our supply of whole oats that are inadvertently introduced at the farms where the oats were grown, or during transportation of the whole oats to the mill.  This ensures that the oats used for Cheerios allow us to meet the FDA’s strict guideline for gluten free.”

The cynic in me asks why certain farmers have been painstakingly growing oats in their fields, far from cross contamination, to ensure a safe gluten-free oat product, if all you had to do was sort it out??  Seriously though,  I have been doing gluten free for my daughter for nearly 15 years.  And it has been my belief that once a product is contaminated with gluten couldn’t it be uncontaminated.

The week of the announcement, Gluten Free Watchdog‘s Tricia Thompson posted news on this subject and talked extensively with General Mills.  She reported “General Mills claims that wheat and barley grain are removed from their oat supply by a proprietary mechanical process developed by engineers at General Mills (General Mills has reported elsewhere that they are using a mechanical filter).”  Later in the article Thompson explained “General Mills stated that they would not feel comfortable labeling Cheerios gluten-free if they used oats that were specially produced to be gluten-free or certified gluten-free.”

Thompson would like to see General Mills be more transparent in its explanation of how they are making the oats gluten free.

General Mills told Gluten-Free Living Magazine “We tested both options [certified gluten free oats and oats from their sorting process] and are going with the one that provides the greatest consistency for our product,” Mike Siemienas, a Cheerios spokesman told the magazine.

Gluten-Free Living also spoke with Steve L. Taylor, Ph.D., co-director of the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who is an expert in gluten testing.  He said  the company is serious about gluten free. “If General Mills indicates that Cheerios are gluten free, then I would believe that they are indeed gluten free,” he told the magazine. “I also personally know that General Mills is a very cautious company and that they would be unlikely to take any chances with the labeling decision.”

Finally, just last week the Center for Celiac Research spoke up on the issue via Facebook. CFCR’s dietitian Pam Cureton said she is “…comfortable recommending [gluten free Cheerios] for patients, but will emphasize the need for follow up testing whenever oats are introduced.”


So what should you do?

Good question!  Certainly the decision is up to you individually.

I don’t think General Mills would risk its Cheerios brand by not really making the cereal safe for people with celiac disease, when they are marketing this gluten-free change directly at us. It would be a public relations disaster and they know that.  They also know the FDA’s requirements for labeling a product gluten free.  It MUST test below 20 ppm.

I am certain General Mills didn’t take this decision lightly.

If you are really interested in this topic.  I HIGHLY recommend you read the two articles I cited here.

There is a lot of additional information in these articles that I didn’t get into here.  But more education will really help with you making your decision about the new gluten-free Cheerios debuting later this year.

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