I grew up eating Cheerios and sliced bananas for breakfast many mornings. I loved Cheerios! And even though I don’t eat processed cereal now, I would be happy for General Mills to offer it as a safe gluten-free cereal for those who do want to eat it.
In case you’re not aware, there are five flavors of Cheerios that are now labeled gluten free. Whether the cereal is in fact gluten free, or is consistently gluten free, has been a question of debate. Here are some things you should consider before eating them or allowing your gluten-free child to eat them.
The story on oats
First we have to cover the basics about gluten-free oats because oats are the main ingredient in Cheerios. Pure oats are gluten free (though some people do not tolerate even pure oats). The problem is that most farmers who grow oats practice crop rotation, which results in the oats being contaminated with gluten during harvest and transportation.
Because of this cross contamination, there is a handful of companies who grow oats in fields where there is no crop rotation with gluten containing grains. These oats are considered safe for the gluten-free diet. Personally, I prefer brands that are certified gluten free and tested to less than 10 parts per million (ppm).
How General Mills makes Cheerios gluten free
So, when General Mills decided to make five flavors of Cheerios gluten free, you might have expected them to use gluten-free oats. But they didn’t. Instead, they decided to use contaminated oats and mechanically separate them from the other grains, which have a different size and shape.
The obvious question at this point is why would they choose to use oats that are known to be contaminated rather than simply using gluten-free oats? According to General Mills, there are not enough gluten-free oats available for their needs. Keep in mind that they are not making two versions of the five gluten-free flavors. Whether people eat gluten free or not, they only have one choice.
Does their process work?
The next obvious question is whether their mechanical process for purifying the oats actually works. The method of determining that answer is to test for the presence of gluten. General Mills does testing after the oats are separated from gluten-containing grains, after the oats are milled into flour, and after the Cheerios are made.
General Mills goes by the US Food and Drug Administration guideline that less than 20 ppm is considered gluten free. And according to GM, their Cheerios meet that guideline, often citing much lower levels of gluten.
What’s the debate about?
The debate has to do with the testing, and Tricia Thompson of Gluten-Free Watchdog is our advocate in this. According to Tricia, who traveled to General Mills, GM is reporting a lot mean (average) by combining 12 to 18 boxes of cereal, grinding them together and testing the results. (How many people combine multiple boxes of cereal when they eat it?)
And when they shared extraction values with Tricia, it revealed that while most extractions were under 20 ppm, some were above 20 ppm.
Gluten Dude also visited General Mills and they sent him an email in response to the concerns expressed by Tricia. While they cited numbers well below 20 ppm, they were again citing mean results.
The problem with mean values is that any samples that are over 20 ppm are getting diluted by the lower value samples. That works for some things, but not for people who need to avoid gluten 100% of the time.
Tricia Thompson says,
Based on extraction values shared with me I am not fully confident that every box of Yellow Box Cheerios from the 88 lots produced at the time of my visit to General Mills contains a level of gluten less than 20 parts per million.
And that is where the debate is centered. Some believe (including myself) that every box should test to less than 20 ppm gluten. Not an average.
Honestly, I’m mad at General Mills for trying to pass off mean (average) test results when I know they understand the seriousness of people needing safe gluten-free food. Do I think that every box of gluten-free Cheerios contains more than 20 ppm gluten? No! But if one box on the grocery store shelf does contain more than 20 ppm and a celiac gets sick from eating it, then shame on them. We’re not buying 12 boxes and mixing them all together and pouring an average sampling into our bowls. People buy one box and eat what’s in that box. If it says it’s gluten free, then it should be less than 20 ppm. Always.
If you know that gluten is detrimental to your health or that of your child, then I don’t think that eating Cheerios is worth the risk. I know it’s disappointing, but I would give it more time. According to an update that Tricia posted today, General Mills says they are working on the areas of concern. We can always hope.
- Gluten-Free Cheerios: Safe or Not? Part 2
- More on Gluten-Free Cheerios and We Should All Be Watchdogs
- Gluten-Free Cheerios Recall