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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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    Why doesn't the FDA or one these other entities claiming General Mills has misbranded the product(s) just test random batches to see if they fall below the threshold of 20 ppm to meet claims of being gluten-free?

    So far, the FDA has not said that Cheerios or other GM cereals are mislabeled. Basically, we have a handful of complaints out of hundreds of millions of boxes, coupled with a few rumors and personal anecdotes that keep the story going. Otherwise, no solid evidence that they are not gluten-free as labeled.

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    This article is not scientific and the conclusion is absurd. First, the proper comparison would be between the number of complaints on Cherrios and those on another gluten-free cereal. I would imagine that there are cereals where millions of boxes have been shipped and there are no complaints of this sort. Secondly, in order to conclude that Cherrios are (even likely) gluten-free, you have to explain the complaints. Are people lying? Are they wrong? If so, why? You have to allege that every single complaint is from a person who is in fact not being contaminated with enough gluten to cause any unusual (for them) reaction, or that they are being affected, and it is only because they are so sensitive that 200 parts per million is not good enough for them.

    One explanation for the complaints would be an oat reaction. Another would be that they are mistaken or have some other intolerance/issue. Remember, you are talking 40 complaint in 18 months with 500 million boxes shipped. During the three month period prior to their recall due to known gluten contamination, the FDA received 150 complaints out of about 75 million boxes shipped. If Cheerios were contaminated with gluten, one presumes the complaint level would mirror the 150, rather than dropping to a tiny fraction of that volume.

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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.

    The lack of lawsuits and low extremely low FDA complaint levels, and lack of finding boxes of Cheerios contaminated with gluten all point to a product that is likely safe for celiacs. If they were contaminated as some people claim, it would not take long to find the evidence. Certainly large class action law firms would be all over GM if this were the case.

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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.

    The scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows that the vast majority of people with celiac disease do not react to gluten levels below 20ppm. Besides that, trying to prove something has ZERO gluten is very hard and expensive. It would be very costly. gluten-free Cheerios are also sold in Canada, where the level is 5ppm, so GM must be very confident in their product being below 5ppm, otherwise they would not sell them there too. The Canadian government does regularly test products to assure compliance.

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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 send the link and the scientific info showing that Cheerios and other gluten-free GM products are actually contaminated with gluten. We'll be happy to read it and write an article about it.

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    The more important question is, are Cheerios leading to celiac?

    Celiac disease is not caused by eating gluten-free foods. There's no evidence that Cheerios are not gluten-free as labeled.

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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.

    I'm still waiting for Ms. Thompson to publicly announce that Cheerios are unsafe and contaminated. She has not, and likely will not. Years ago she promised to release proof of her lab results but never did. Why not? Either because she has none, or General Mills might sue her for defamation. Regarding people you know who "got sick" on Cheerios. What about all the celiacs who eat Cheerios with impunity? Are they special? Please read the comments on this thread. So far there is simply no evidence that Cheerios are unsafe for people with celiac disease, but if that changes, we will be happy to let the world know.

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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.

    Just checking, but have you read the comments here? What about the people with celiac disease who eat Cheerios regularly? They exist. Multitudes more of them than claim to have problems. I'm not quit sure where your claim is coming from. How do you know how many people with celiac disease eat Cheerios?

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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 test results you speak of. Also, why no action from the FDA? Why no lawsuits from money-hungry trial attorneys, especially lawyers with celiac disease and a bone to pick with GM because Cheerios made them sick? So far there are none, and so far there are also no test results that "prove" Cheerios are contaminated with gluten. I am curious, how do you know you react at 5ppm? Have you been tested with a gluten challenge at 5ppm?

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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?

    Interesting. I've suspected that other reactions might be to blame. Obviously oats, but corn is an interesting one. Certainly people can have adverse reactions to corn, Hmmm. Thank you!

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    I was diagnosed with celiac disease 47 years ago. My question to you is how many of us like me never reported it? I don't think you have accurate numbers. I had a horrible reaction and just never ate them again but I didn't ever report it anywhere.

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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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