The Latest “Facts” on the Gluten-Free Cheerios

can i trust gluten free cheerios
Dude Update on 10/09/15: 1.8 million boxes of Gluten-Free Cheerios have been recalled on 10/06/15 due to 1) error 2) negligence and 3) lack of proper testing. It’s that last one that should bug the crap out of you. Read here for details.

Everyone seems so big on “opinions” these days (wake me up when the primaries are over). But when it comes to the safety of the celiac community, I’d prefer to stick with facts.

which cheerios are gluten freeA few months ago, while it seems everyone was celebrating the upcoming gluten-free cheerios, I took a more “wait-and-see” approach. I spent a few days at the General Mills factory and came away impressed by the folks in the mill (and not quite as impressed by everything else.)

Now that the Gluten-Free Cheerios are beginning to hit the store shelves, many of my fellow celiacs have been reaching out to me asking if I think they are safe.

Here’s the question. Does it matter what I think? All that matters is what the facts are. So I’m going to lay out the facts from two valuable resources: The Gluten-Free Watchdog and the folks at General Mills.

Gluten-Free Watchdog (GFWD)

Tricia wrote a very, very thorough review after she traveled to General Mills and viewed GM’s process and test results of the yellow box variety of Cheerios. Read the whole thing here. I’ll summarize the highlights.

Highlight: GFWD still does not support the use of regular oats in gluten-free food, even if they are “cleaned” via a sorting process, such as the one that GM uses.

Highlight: The testing consisted of taking 12-18 boxes of cereal from the production cycle, combining them all together, grounding them and then testing them.

Highlight: The vast majority of the product they tested came under 20 parts per million, many were below the lower limit of quantification of 10 parts per million, and some extractions were above 20 parts per million (one substantially above).

Highlight: This is a direct quote from Tricia: 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.

Highlight: Because they are combining 12-18 boxes in one testing batch, possible dilution takes place. This means one box “could” be way over 20ppm but we’d never know it because the other boxes “could” be way under 20ppm, balancing it all out.

Highlight: Cheerios should consider sourcing oats from farmers who provide the cleanest oats possible.

Thanks Tricia for all of your hard work. The celiac community greatly appreciates it.

General Mills

The folks at GM sent me the following email yesterday.

I just wanted to share an update with you on Gluten Free Cheerios, in the interest of continuing the dialogue with you. We know there have been some concerns in the celiac community, and one of the ways we want to address those concerns is through increased transparency. I know you’ve seen Tricia’s recent post on Cheerios, and we continue to work directly with her to address her concerns. The below is new data of our first month of production that we have not published yet but will continue to be part of our transparency journey with the celiac community. I wanted to share it with you immediately to help alleviate any concerns you may have about the safety of our product for your community.

We have 34 days of Original Cheerios production across our 4 Cheerios plants. Each of those run days has at least 12 samples that we pull.

– The mean ppm of those samples is 7.
– 30 days had an average < 10ppm - 2 days = 11ppm; 2 days = 12ppm Furthermore, we have some data on some of the other flavors (that run less frequently due to size of business). - Multi-Grain Cheerios: 2 run days across 2 plants -- Mean <5ppm - Apple Cinnamon Cheerios: 1 run day across 1 plant --Mean <5ppm As always, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to reach out. We are likely talking to Tricia on the 12th or 13th and would be happy to update you on some of the specifics of that dialogue once we land on the date. Thank you!

So there you have it. Make your own decision as to whether they are safe to eat based on the above facts.

And ok…fine…I will share my OPINION. I mean, what’s a blog post without at least a teensy opinion.

I think the Gluten-Free Cheerios are most likely safe to eat. And I do believe the folks at GM are trying their absolute best to make them safe for you to eat.

Will I be eating them? No. I stay away from processed cereal. The worst way to start your day.

If I did eat cereal, would I eat them? Not yet. I’d wait to see what GFWD comes back with.

And those are the facts.

Cheer(io)s!!

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43 thoughts on “The Latest “Facts” on the Gluten-Free Cheerios”

  1. Thanks for your healthy skepticism on this one, GD.

    I really don’t like the way GM is testing their product by combining all these samples together and then testing on repartitioned samples from this admixture. People don’t eat cereal by buying a dozen boxes (perhaps even from different grocers, one might suppose?) and then pouring out a spoonful or two one by one from each box to fill their bowls. I would think the test ought to be based on what I would call a “consumption sample” — one that reflects how the cereal is eaten in the home.

    The whole point of the testing is to ensure there are no outliers beyond the wrong end of the spectrum and this combining of product from different boxes seems to defeat this purpose as it is quite possible to introduce the dilution effect described above.

    It’s almost as if they’re trying to mechanically average away any gluten signal that could be emerging from the noise. The test would be fine if all that mattered were the long-run average (and assuming the ppm values it gives are accurate). But in this case there’s more to it than just that. It’s also important that there be no significantly outlying consumption samples. Practically any undergraduate STEM student could tell you all of this. What GM is doing sounds like looking at the average income of a large group of people to determine its poverty rate.

    While I do eat some other cereals that are GF and once ate many other non-GF ones before my DX, I’d never really cared too much for Cheerios. But even if I were inclined to have them again I’d need better facts that what we’ve gotten so far.

      1. Wow, thanks for the compliment!

        I was also wondering, doesn’t GM machine the raw (cleaned) oats into flour as one of the steps in making the cereal? Does this flour get tested for gluten content before it gets made into cereal?

        If the flour is already failing then they shouldn’t be making cereal from it (and could probably re-purpose it for something else in their vast array of non-GF products).

        On the other hand if it’s fine then this means the cleaning process is working and the cereal is getting contamination from elsewhere, so the flour quality would be a useful thing to know. The long-run average would be an important part of this picture.

        I’ve already asked this question in the comments of the GFWD article whose link you gave above, so hoping to get an answer on that.

        1. John (or GD), maybe you could check my math on this:

          I looked up the Cheerios nutrition information on their website, and it says that a one-cup serving of Cheerios is 28 grams. If that serving came from a box that contained Cheerios at 100 ppm gluten, that would be 2.8 milligrams of gluten.

          I looked around for information on how much gluten a celiac could tolerate in a day, and found an article “How Much Gluten is Safe for Folks with Celiac Disease?” by Jefferson Adams on celiac.com. At the end of the article he talks about several studies that have been done, but they seem to have wildly differing results. But in his conclusion he states: “The body of science suggests that consuming 6mg per day of gluten intake would not promote mucosal abnormalities among most people with celiac disease.” Note the use of the word ‘most’ in that statement.

          So for most of us, a cup of Cheerios isn’t likely to set us back. And for the rest, it could be a problem. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to find out, since intestinal damage may be slight and not immediately apparent. So, like most stuff in our celiac world, it’s a crap shoot– it probably won’t hurt, it might hurt but not be apparent, or it could produce typical symptoms of being glutened. I think I’ll let other people be the early adopters.

    1. I’ll scaremonger a little. Let’s recognize that General Mills is a big corporation with access to leading production methods, food scientists, and the sharpest attorneys. GM’s testing technique has certainly passed muster with all these folks, and GM is also publicizing their methods and results. Yet they are getting regular levels of gluten below 20ppm and also some results above 20ppm.

      Now what does all this information tell you about all the other gluten free processed foods on the market? What does this mean for the smaller food companies that only meet the FDA’s lowest standard for declaring their chow gluten free, wherein they aren’t required to do any in house testing at all?

  2. I don’t love cereal, I too try to steer clear from processed foods. However, as the mother of two non-celiac children, one who has all the genes and one who doesn’t but both LOVE cereal, I’m more comfortable having them “GF” in my home. Anything that makes getting out the door in the morning easier and safer is OK by me and this is kind of one of those things.

  3. I don’t typically eat cereal either, unless it’s the certified gluten free irish oatmeal, but it does make me happy that there are starting to be other options available for those that choose to have cereal. I found great joy going to the grocery store and seeing these on the shelf for the first time. In my 24 years of life, I have never ever had Cheerios, and it made me feel so happy to finally have something that everyone else got to enjoy all these years.

    I’m happy that children growing up with Celiac can now feel “normal” and like they “fit in” and eat what everyone else is eating the next morning at a sleep over.

  4. Hmmm…. 12 samples from the how many 100s or 1000s of boxes produced daily? I don’t eat grains anymore anyway but I would not want to risk it based on the odds that I might get that one box that somehow ended up with the “unclean” oats. I think this cereal is best left for the fadders (can that be a word?).

  5. “…but will continue to be part of our transparency journey with the celiac community.”

    That journey will be an ill-fated trek if the numbers keep coming up poorly and they try to spin it in a good way. And what are poor numbers? Do they think that an 11ppm average is good? Do we, the celiacs? Maybe it’s good enough to boost sales (as with Chex)…

    If Tricia Thompson’s testing has issues with a food product, then I don’t know why anyone aware of that would go ahead and eat the food. The risk is fairly good overall in this case, if you don’t consider that being unlucky means you get a box that was “substantially above” 20 ppm (as CR alluded to).

  6. I can’t wait to try them!

    Perhaps I’m an optimist but I think we have to trust our food producers.. unless we have the time and inclination to make everything from scratch for every meal. Unfortunately I do not. Maybe I’m a product of the convenience generation. Maybe I’m lazy. Who knows. What I do know is that I think about food 24/7…and I REALLY don’t want to think about it that much! Believe me, I’m all about staying safe (and healthy) but sometimes we just have to put our trust in others. GM seems to be going about this endeavor in a responsible manner, so imma choose to be optimistic!

    1. I have to totally dis-agree 100%.

      When one has an auto immune disease, it is ones responsibility to take care with ones health. Because Celaic can kill in many ways and make people very ill in others, simply trusting our health to others is irresponsible

      I think about food all the time too. And I cook everything from scratch. It is not that hard. I cook double and freeze leftovers. That is health AND convenience!

  7. I think they sound good. I don’t really eat cereal for breakfast, but I like something crunchy for an afternoon snack. So cereal is really a healthier option than potato chips, for me. Also, this is a cereal I can get that other family members will be allowed to eat. Cause they can’t even LOOK at my expensive gf cereal if they have a spoon in their hand!

  8. Great investigation work on various parts. I’m a Celiac of 20 years, will I eat them, NO.

    I limit processed grains, I don’t trust big companies out of the gate and don’t like the excuses they made about not finding gluten free oats. GM is a huge bad ass business so buy some land and farm it yourself that’s real commitment (pay me a royalty for the idea).

    No thanks, not yet. Talk in a year or two, maybe. But I still just won’t be eating a circular ring of grains that looks nothing like an oat, lol.

    1. GlutenFreeG,

      EXACTLY!

      ….and now they are forthcoming with methodology and test results! Why not at the GM factory tour GD and other experts like GFWD were invited to attend? Why are they just answering questions and sharing information now?

      Other companies have produced Certified GF oats from seed to end product in certified facilities…….surely if GM wants market share they could too and a hero to a growing market requiring a GF diet as a medical treatment!

      I think they missed the……. oat! I know I will not.

  9. I tend to stay away from cereal more for the milk than the actual cereal as most dairy alternatives make my stomach sad. That being said, I will still try a bowl with some almond milk.

  10. For me, any product made on shared equipment is out. Are Cheerios made on dedicated gf equipment? When I spoke to someone about the process of cleaning equipment and how contamination could happen anywhere on the line, I made the decision to stay away from shared equipment food. I like how they say “mean” value … which says nothing. Only that half the samples had less than 5 ppm and half had more than 5 ppm. How much more? Who knows? Even the “average” tells us, basically, nothing. Eating them, in my opinion, based on available facts, would be a poo poo shoot. Thanks for the update.

  11. Oh my goodness. You can read the same question all over FaceBook. “Has anyone here tried the GF Cheerios and had a reaction?” “Can anyone tell me if they ate them with no affects?”
    Now I see Celiac’s posting about eating them and getting really very seriously ill. WHY?
    Food is fuel for the body. Food is healing. Food is reviving. It is necessary. Bread, cake, breakfast cereal enhanced with vitamins and minerals slathered in a natural product meant for baby cows is NOT necessary to start ones day.

    Why in the world would averaging the boxes for the lot be appropriate? I don’t eat an entire “lot” of cereal ever. I don’t purchase it a lot at a time. That one box that is over 20ppm is going to make someone very ill.

    This makes me really wonder about all those other “gluten free” items on the shelf. If manufacturers are allowed to pull stunts like testing the entire batch (lot) and claiming each bag is below 20ppm, I feel we have been betrayed.

  12. My family and I are looking forward to trying the GF Cheerios. Based on all of the info I have read about them they should be safe for the vast majority of us with celiac disease.

  13. I can’t eat them. Oats are as bad for me as any wheat product, actually worse. It would not matter in my case because I do not eat processed food and certainly wouldn’t eat anything from this manufacturer. I do not trust them.

  14. I too am concerned that they are averaging the data.

    We need to see data on values for individual boxes, not an average, whether averaged numerically or by mixing together multiple boxes.

  15. I agree that cereal is not the best way to start your day…and by that I mean any cereal that comes in a box. It is a processed food no matter what, and the goal for everyone (not just celiac patients with impaired intestinal absorption of nutrients) should be to consume whole, real food. I sometimes say to my clients that if it is advertised on TV it’s probably not good for you…Have you ever seen an ad for a plain tomato or perhaps one for uncooked pinto beans? No, I didn’t think so…It’s an oversimplification, but it illustrates the point…If it is manufactured or processed, the manufacturer will do whatever it takes to convince you to buy his product…and there are all kinds of ramifications…Along those lines, General Mills is notorious for their undying support of GMO foods…and against labeling them. Do you want to know what is in your food? I would say do not support brands that push for cryptic labeling. It’s a maze for consumers out there, specially those with serious issues such as Celiac Disease…but your way out is through education.

  16. GD, I really appreciate you sharing Tricia’s report with everyone as well as the follow-up contact information from General Mills but, respectfully, I don’t agree with your take away. Since when did “mean” testing become acceptable? The gluten-free labeling laws say nothing about companies being able to take an average of testing values and if that average falls below 20 ppm, call it “gluten free.” I take that to mean each and every product must be below less than 20 ppm. I’m pretty sure that’s what the gf community wants and what we have always thought that it meant. That’s why we fought so hard to get the FDA to move on the gluten-free labeling law and cheered when it came into effect. I never, ever saw anything that said that manufacturers could go for a mean or average of product samples. I will be contacting the FDA about this issue. As others have noted, folks have already reported getting ill, as in “glutened.” I’m not at all surprised given what we know now. I tried a number of GM products in the early days of their “gluten-free” products and got glutened every time (sometimes I didn’t even know it was a GM product until after I’d gotten glutened and inquired further of my gf hosts). Others have reported the same. Now I wonder if GM has been practicing this “mean” testing for their “gluten-free” products from Day One.

    Shirley

    1. Thanks Shirley. I totally hear you. I went with my heart a bit as I really do believe the folks in the mill really want this to work. I’ve definitely been educated about the “mean” testing since writing the post. I am looking forward to what GFW says next.

  17. I’m a little confused by part of this.

    In Gluten Free Watchdog’s information, she pointed out that General Mills is using R7002 testing. The lower limit of quantification with that test is 10 ppm. In the email you received from General Mills, they reference testing numbers as low as 5 ppm. Have they changed their testing to R7001? How are these new low numbers being obtained?

    Anxiously awaiting independent test results. Not a fan of Cheerios with so many delicious, naturally gluten-free breakfast options, but concerned for others who are choosing to eat this. I hope General Mills will decide to be trendsetters and submit to frequent independent testing. Wouldn’t that be great?

  18. Not worth the risk. Simply not worth it. On the off chance that that the *one* over 20ppm box ended up at my house. No way, no how. I’m too sensitive and too careful. I do agree that it would be a safer GF out the door quickie cereal for non-celiac kids in the house or starving non-celiac teenagers who need a snack. :o)

    I don’t trust big food producers because their bottom line is more important to them than my bottom end.

    By the way, I love this website!! LOVE LOVE!!! THANK YOU for taking your time!!

  19. I find it somewhat worrisome that they didn’t send you any data on the honey nut cheerios since that’s the only flavor they have available where I live. My husband and I didn’t connect our symptoms from the last few weeks with the Cheerios until I read the GFWD post, but now I’m afraid that’s what’s been making us sick. This really makes me mistrustful of gluten free labels on packaged foods.

  20. I will stay away for several reasons. First, I don’t like the fact that they take an average ppm and call it “safe.” I also don’t like that they are too arrogant to bother with third-party certification (I’ve read this in several other articles about their new GF Cheerios). But the main reason why I will stay away from everything General Mills is because I get SUPER sick, within an hour of eating their GF Chex cereals. I was so happy to find GF cereal right after my diagnosis, that I bought a couple of different GF Chex flavors. Every one of them caused violent bathroom grief. Multiple boxes, same reaction.

  21. Tried the Cheerios. Wondered if anyone had gotten ill, as I may have gotten ill from it. Well, more than I already was feeling. I… don’t think that process is that safe. Can that woman described on the back eat them without problem?
    Either that, or gained a corn intolerance. Chex plain quick cooking oats seem fine to me.

    1. I’ve heard from many who have gotten ill. And many who have had no issues. My question is this: there is still some doubt as to whether their testing methods are good enough to keep us safe. So why is ANYONE risking it? It’s a bowl of freaking cereal. Sorry…but I just don’t get it sometimes.

  22. I read what Gluten Watch Dog published about Cheerios. During their testing phase they pulled boxes from the final production line that tested 90ppm. That is extremely dangerous for anyone who needs gluten free for health reasons. ***

    General Mills is producing their OWN OAT flour. They take each batch of oat flour and put that oat flour into production and end up with finished product. At this point, they take a box out for testing, toss it into the pile waiting for the rest of the product run sample boxes for the 24 hour period. Then they mix all these up and come up with less than 20ppm.

    But in this “test sample” there are boxes well above the 20ppm. Those boxes went to shipping, arrived in stores, were placed on shelves and customers purchased them went home and ate them. Does it matter one iota that any other boxes produced that day are safe? TO the person who got stuck with that box of 90ppm gluten it makes no difference at all that the rest of the days production was safe.

    If general mills were actually concerned about customer health and safety, they would test the grain or oat flour and take steps to ensure this primary ingredient is safely below 20ppm million BEFORE putting it into production and producing TOTALLY UNSAFE product that actually makes it into the hands of consumers. That is how a responsible corporation handles themselves.

    There is rumor that general mills is planning to announce Lucky Charms as gluten free very soon. They plan on using this same oat flour to produce their “gluten free” Lucky Charms.

    This is the classic game of Russian roulette. You might eat cheerios for years before getting one of those 90ppm boxes. Who cares? When you purchased that highly contaminated box, you will end up destroying your villi.

    In my personal opinion, what general mills is doing amounts to criminal assault. They know full well that they are putting boxes on the shelf that are above the 20ppm legal standard. They are choosing a testing methodology that makes no sense and allowing unsafe product out the door and into the hands of people for whom it is critical to their health. They should be held responsible for this lie they are perpetrating on consumers.

    ***(They claim that “these never made it to consumers”. It was during their TESTING Phase so of course it did not make it to consumers. But they have no information about changing their testing methodology. Any corporation that has consumer confidence and safety first and foremost will be happy to publish such information and changes which ensure consumer safety going forward. IN the absence of such, we can safely assume that no changes were made because they are hiding behind this 24 hour testing of final product.)

    1. It is Russian Roulette! That is exactly what I call that in my group when I’m asked. I won’t play Russian Roulette, for a box of cereal? Not worth it! In the environmental sampling world, it is well known to reduce numbers you lot test or what we call average. You take enough samples, and then average the result. Often used with historic fill cases (soil that was there from some other industry, long before you were on site) to close them, but with requirements for capping the site, nondisturbance of the soil. Meaning a stop gap measure. So, yeah, exactly, Russian Roulette!

  23. Wish I’d thought to read this before I got excited and bought a box and immediately got sick =( Thankful that I can still eat rice chex, I’m a kid at heart and have trouble ditching cereal. Anyone have any favorite cereals they can recommend?

  24. I have gotten into arguments with people in my Celiac group about this. I, for one, won’t take the risk and eat these. Some of them say they ate them and had “no problems.” They are probably just lucky and eating the boxes that have no issues. And they think that people are just making mountains out of molehills. If some of the boxes aren’t safe, then they shouldn’t be labeled “gluten-free.” They are taking a big risk eating these, but in the end, it’s their problem, not mine.

  25. Kathleen Thompson

    I tried them and they made me sick. For me, these have to be cross contaminated in production. They had issues in California plant, wheat flour was added by mistake. I thought, hmm, maybe I had a box of those. I bought another box to try, production numbers were not in the recall, same results. Somewhere in the production facility this product is getting cross contaminated. General Mills needs to get serious, separate facility, certified gluten free oats. Only the few who are following the Gluten Free Fad, can eat these, those people can digest gluten, Celiacs stay clear.

  26. Hi, writing from New Zealand. I find this quite interesting as I ate “gluten free cheerios” on a cruise ship before i realised later that they contain oats. The standard response in New Zealand is that oats proteins are very similar to gluten and a lot of Coeliacs (Celiac in the U.S.) react to both so oat containing food isn’t labelled as gluten free.
    The official guideline is that some Coeliacs can tolerate oats but not all. As i’m a silent reactor (probably because it got picked up early enough) I try to stay away from all oat products. I was initially surprised to see oat products in American supermarkets labelled as safe, as they wouldn’t be in New Zealand.

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I AM someone who's been gluten-free since 2007 due to a diagnosis of severe celiac disease. I'm someone who can steer you in the right direction when it comes to going gluten-free. And I'm someone who will always give you the naked truth about going gluten free.

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