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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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    Cheerios sent me racing to the bathroom. I thought at first it was gluten, but no: It was my corn allergy. Cornstarch is the second ingredient. I supposedly had a corn allergy my entire life, per allergy scratch tests, but it was asymptomatic until 2012 when my gut went haywire and I could no longer digest gluten (or sorghum, teff, quinoa, etc. Is it possible that some celiacs who think they are reacting to gluten in Cheerios instead have developed an undiagnosed corn allergy?

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    I have celiac disease and have been eating Cheerios for the past year with no problems at all. I especially love the fact that their prices are so reasonable. I can't afford most gluten free foods. So I give General Mills a 10 for caring and doing it right.

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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.

    Please post the results of any tests you know of that are above 20ppm, otherwise you are simply making claims without any evidence.

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    My daughter has celiac disease and has been eating a lot of Cheerios since they went gluten-free. She has no symptoms and her annual blood check ups have shown no elevations. Are some people perhaps sensitive to Oats? We are thrilled she can eat Cheerios.

    How often did she have regular Cheerios before having the disease?

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    Just playing devil's advocate here. Since many people with celiac never knew what was making them sick before diagnosis, how can we be sure, when we do feel a bit off on any given day, exactly what it was that caused us to feel off? And, since quite a few with celiac do not become symptomatic right away, some never, and some with different symptoms from any given exposure, I just can't see anything scientific about the determination of safety based on just complaints. I can eat something one day with no problem, then feel sick two days later when I eat it again. Can I be sure that one thing was the cause? No. And I would not make a complaint to a company based off that. Maybe a lot of others do the same. Bottom line, if an oat containing food is not made with certified gluten free oats on dedicated equipment within a dedicated facility, there could be a problem. We live with a certain level of risk every day. People deserve to be able to determine what level is acceptable to them based on facts. So, give them the facts about ingredients and how the food is processed and let them decide what is safe for them and what is not.

    I agree, totally let each person decide. Everyone reacts differently and each person has their own set of health issues at any given time. Celiac is such a hard disease to pin down with delayed symptoms.

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    I used to eat Cheerios all the time pre-celiac, and have now been diagnosed celiac for 11 years. I'm highly symptomatic. I eat certified gluten-free oatmeal all the time and have no oat sensitivity (also no corn sensitivity). I've reacted to Cheerios, regular and honey nut, most of the time - typical celiac reaction, within about an hour from eating the cereal - but once in a while I'm fine. Also similar with Lucky Charms, maybe fine half the time, react half the time. I assume that I'm reacting to that small portion of gluten that is allowed to be in the cereal, or maybe there are "hot spots" of gluten....because of all this uncertainty though, I avoid the cereals unless I'm REALLY craving them. I also never complained to GM. I think those complaint numbers are low because most of us just don't want to bother officially complaining each time we react. If they did a huge international survey about their gluten-free cereals and have a question asking whether the survey participant is celiac, NCGS, and officially diagnosed (blood test/endoscopy) then they would get VERY different results (I understand those surveys have inherent errors based on qualitative reporting, but it's better than guessing complaint numbers per celiac per shipment of cereal). As others pointed out too, every celiac is different, everyone's symptoms flair up differently, so it's VERY tricky figuring out what caused a flair-up and to what extent. It's even more dangerous for those who get no symptoms, as the damage to the immune system continues with them unaware. In the end, I think it comes down to personal sensitivity, knowing our own bodies, and deciding on what risks we're willing to take. Obviously, I'd love for GM to use certified gluten-free oats and facility and not just their sorting process, I would then buy Cheerios all the time...but until that happens, I have to weigh the risks carefully and will generally avoid their cereals.

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    Thanks for writing HRaven. Your diet history is consistent with my belief that regular Cheerios actually leads to celiac disease. I just meet someone else earlier this year whose grown daughter has celiac. She had given her child Cheerios all the time as a child.

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    I have celiac and I won't even try Cheerios. My observation would that the reason complaints have gone down is that most people with celiac are not about taking chances with their health. There has been no solid proof that Cheerios are gluten free and what are the chances of another big mistake happening in the future?

    I think you may have it backwards. There is currently no solid proof that Cheerios are not gluten-free, which is the point of the article.

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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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