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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    Are Cheerios Really "Not Safe For Celiacs?" Or is General Mills Getting a Bad Rap?

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      Journal of Gluten Sensitivity Autumn 2017 Issue


    Caption: Image: CC--m01229

    Celiac.com 09/01/2017 - A recent story by Buzzfeed does little to answer the question of whether Cheerios and other General Mills cereals are actually gluten-free and safe for people with celiac disease.

    There are a number of folks in the gluten-free community who complain that General Mills is making people sick by selling Cheerios that they know to be contaminated with gluten due to a faulty sorting process. Because General Mills uses a flawed sorting process, the story goes, their boxes of Cheerios are subject to gluten "hot spots," which is making some gluten-sensitive folks sick, thus the complaints.

    They point to regular complaints logged by the FDA to argue that Cheerios are clearly not gluten-free, and thus not safe for people with celiac disease. Comment sections on articles covering this topic show that plenty of people claim that Cheerios makes them sick, and triggers gluten-related symptoms.

    But, one useful measure of the basic scope of an issue is numbers. What kind of numbers are we talking about? How many complaints? How many boxes of Cheerios?

    It's important to realize that General Mills produces huge numbers of Cheerios each week. How many exactly? Well, according to their website, General Mills ships 500,000 cases of Cheerios each week. At about 12 boxes per case, that's about 6 million boxes each week, or 24 million boxes each month.

    We know that the FDA received a number of consumer complaints in 2015, when a mix-up at a Cheerios plant in California led to mass gluten contamination, and eventually to a full recall of 1.8 million boxes by General Mills.

    During that three month period, after the gluten contamination but prior to the recall, when many consumers were eating Cheerios made with wheat flour, the FDA says it received 136 complaints about adverse reactions to the product. So, during the 90 days when we know there was gluten contamination in nearly 2 million boxes of Cheerios, when people were definitely having gluten reactions, the FDA got 136 complaints. During that time General Mills shipped about 72 million boxes, and later recalled nearly 2 million of those due to gluten contamination. That's a complaint rate of about one complaint per 529,411 total boxes, and about one complaint for every 5,000 people with celiac disease; if each person with celiac ate 1 box, and the complaints came only from people with celiac disease. (Obviously this is simplified assumption for discussion purposes).

    Let's imagine another 2 million gluten-contaminated boxes got to consumers. Again, imagine that 1% of those buyers were celiac, so that 20,000 boxes of the 2 million went to celiacs—one box each. 146 complaints for 20,000 boxes is about 1 complaint per 140 boxes, give or take, for each person with celiac disease. That seems like a substantial complaint rate. So, how does that rate compare to the current rate, after the recall?

    Since the beginning of 2016, the FDA has received 46 reports of people with celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten or wheat linking their illness to General Mills cereals, including Cheerios and Lucky Charms.

    Let's forget about Lucky Charms for a minute, let's focus on Cheerios. During the 18 months from January 2016 to July 2017, General Mills has shipped something like 450 million boxes. That's about one complaint for every 10 million boxes of Cheerios, or about one complaint for every 100,000 people with celiac disease.

    And those numbers don't include Lucky Charms, which account for some portion of the 46 complaints since early 2016. If General Mills is having an issue with sorting oats, then why have complaint ratios gone down so sharply?

    Also, General Mills uses its optically sorted gluten-free oats for other products. The FDA is certainly taking all of this into account. When they get complaints, they look at large amounts of data to help them put things into perspective. Has the FDA seen corresponding numbers of complaints for different General Mills products made from the same oat sorting process? It doesn't seem so.

    Celiac.com has covered the gluten-free Cheerios story from the beginning, and will continue to do so. We stand on the side of science, and accurate information.

    Beyond the obvious gluten-contamination that led to the recall, we have been skeptical of claims that General Mills' sorting process is flawed, and that their products, including Cheerios are routinely contaminated with gluten.

    If this were true, we think the numbers would be very different, and that the pattern of official complaints would reflect that reality. We also feel that General Mills would be facing down lawsuits from hungry trial lawyers looking to put a big trophy on the wall.

    We have simply not seen any good evidence that supports claims that Cheerios and other General Mills products are contaminated with gluten "hotspots" that cause reactions in people with celiac disease. We have also not seen evidence that rules out adverse oat reactions as the cause of many of these claims.

    If someone out there has different numbers, or better information, we are all ears. However, until we see convincing evidence to the contrary, Celiac.com regards Cheerios and other General Mills products as safe for people with celiac disease and gluten-sensitivity. We do offer the caveat that people should trust their own judgement and avoid any food they think makes them sick.

    Stay tuned for more on this and other stories on gluten-free cereals and other products.

    Read more at BuzzFeed.com and GeneralMills.com.


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    So, how does one report this to the FDA, and do people even know they should? I would expect that many people who have reacted have not reported. Personally, I ate a bowl of these at a friend's house while staying the weekend and had diarrhea for three weeks after - and I am sure I didn't eat anything else unsafe because I brought all my own food other than that, but it never occurred to me to do anything more than never eat gluten-free Cheerios again.

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    Well, I do think it's a shame that a processed food can be called gluten-free when it has any amount of gluten in it. As a celiac, I'm very very careful about what I eat. I eat very little processed food anyway, preferring to simply eat food that naturally has no gluten. Seems like the safest/healthiest way for me personally. So, no, I don't eat Cheerios at all.

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    I didn't even know there was a place to complain besides GM and that's a waste of time. I've had issues with their cereals that contain oats to the point I just won't buy them. I'm sure many don't even realize there is somewhere else they can complain.

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    This article makes me very angry, indeed. First, you are devaluing the experience of the people who reported getting glutened (the 46, 136, or 146...all of them). These are not nameless numbers. These are human beings. Even one person being glutened because of a company's negligence is completely unacceptable. If I eat gluten, I am violently sick for 3-5 days; have fatigue, thyroid crashes, and intense brain fog for weeks; and have violently elevated antibodies and attack on my organs for 6 months or more. And you're saying that hundreds of people being made this sick because a company was not diligent enough is acceptable, because it's hundreds, not thousands. That's simply irresponsible, ignorant, and uncaring. If you spend millions on an ad campaign to get celiacs and people with NCGS to buy your product, you damn well better have made sure it is 100% safe. Maybe if they took those millions and applied them to safer production techniques, that complaint number would be zero. Second, how many of us know exactly what glutened us? Based on extensive experience, I would hazard a guess that for every person who complained, there were 10, 20, or more celiacs/NCGS who didn't report it, because they weren't sure which item they had eaten had made them sick. And you claim to be only interested in scientific data. But this is one of the least scientific statements I've ever seen. It is pure conjecture (and grossly incorrect conjecture if one knows anything about celiac and/or human psychology: "If this were true, we think the numbers would be very different, and that the pattern of official complaints would reflect that reality. We also feel that General Mills would be facing down lawsuits from hungry trial lawyers looking to put a big trophy on the wall." Pure conjecture and fantasy. You think. You feel. Zero science. So please drop the pretense of only being interested in scientific fact. And don't pretend that you, or anyone who sanctioned this article, cares about the health and well-being of the celiac/NCGS community.

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    Please contact Tricia Thompson at GlutenfreeWatchdog.com. She has been doing the EXTENSIVE work in discussion with GM and has VERY valid and reliable information about all of this. As a "supporter" for those with celiac disease, you need to take more caution in making safety recommendations. I know 2 people in my own family who get sick when they eat Cheerios and they just have not submitted claims, despite my pleading. Numbers that you "see" don't always reflect what tests measure, which is what she is doing. It would be optimal that you retract your statement of "safety" on this matter until you speak with her directly.

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    Say what you want, I know Cheerios are bad for celiacs. Working for General Mills these days? This cereal is made with cross contaminated oats, period! They have been tested and they contain more than 20 ppm. As a celiac I react to anything greater than 5 ppm, as do many other celiacs.

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    Buzz Feed is just another political left wing lying organization that likes to create trouble. Don't trust them. If at this moment Cheerios were to contain gluten then I would be going into anaphylactic shock as this happens to me from ingesting gluten. I have been eating Cheerios for quite a while and experience no shock reactions. Buzz Feed is full of bull cookies with raisins and gluten!

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    There are less complaints because celiac people aren't buying it anymore. Your numbers don't include demographics on the number of celiacs that did buy and got sick vs those who did not pre and post the recall.

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    I am one with celiac disease who cannot tolerate even gluten free oats. They cause the same reaction in me as gluten. I avoid oats the same way I avoid gluten. Since giving up eating oats a few years ago, I rarely experience symptoms that I associate with eating gluten. I avoid gluten free Cheerios because of the oats, not because I don't think they are gluten free. I avoid eating ANY product with oats. I still have to check ingredient labels on all products that are marked gluten free to make sure they do not contain oats. If there are complaints about General Mills products causing adverse symptoms, perhaps the individual is reacting to the oats themselves, not to any gluten contamination of the oats. I have been enjoying General Mills gluten free Chex cereals for years and they have never made me sick.

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    My husband has had problems with Cheerios also. He is celiac. We have not bothered to report it as we are too busy. It seems every so many boxes is bad or perhaps the top 3/4 of the box is ok but not the bottom. I was wondering if anyone has done a study on how gluten reacts such as falling to the bottom of a box during transit. Perhaps your answer is the fact most people eating Cheerios aren't celiac. Most people I know just stay away if there is a problem. Very few would report it.

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams is Celiac.com's senior writer and Digital Content Director. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in science, scientific methodology, biology, anatomy, medicine, logic, and advanced research. He previously served as SF Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.

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