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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    Are Gluten-Free Cheerios Really Unsafe for Celiacs?

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      Canadian Celiac Association warns against Gluten-Free Cheerios, but is there good evidence?


    Caption: Should celiacs worry about gluten in Gluten-free Cheerios? Photo: CC--Mike Mozart

    Celiac.com 10/26/2016 - There's been a bit of confusion lately over claims by the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA) that the optical sorting system used by General Mills to produce gluten-free Cheerios and other cereals is somehow flawed, and their products not safe for people with celiac disease. The CCA has issued a warning to Canadian consumers with celiac disease against eating gluten-free Cheerios products, based on concerns of possible contamination due to a what they say is a faulty sorting process.

    General Mills debuted their patented optical sorting process and launched gluten-free Cheerios in the U.S. last summer, and they spent millions of dollars developing the new technology. Later, the company voluntarily recalled nearly 2 million boxes, when a plant mixing error caused wheat flour to mixed with oat flour. However, since that time there have been no known reports of systemic contamination, which is what the CCA is alleging.

    General Mills launched five flavors of gluten-free Cheerios in Canada this summer: Original, Honey Nut, Multi-Grain, Apple Cinnamon and Chocolate. Clearly, the CCA is looking to protect people with celiac disease from the perceived possibility of gluten contamination, but the CCA's statement goes beyond urging simple caution, and urging celiacs to report any cases of gluten contamination and to save boxes for lab testing.

    "Hearing stories…"

    Samantha Maloney, former president of the Ottawa chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association, told CBC Radio's All In A Day that the General Mills process of sorting grains to produce gluten-free cereal is "flawed."
    She and her group claim that they have made the claim because they have "heard stories." Has Maloney or anyone in her group actually followed up on these claims, these "stories" she's "hearing?" Without offering any proof or names, or scientific data for making her claim, Maloney went on to say that General Mills is having "a bit of a problem" with the way they are cleaning their oats. Is she saying that the product is being contaminated by gluten? It seems so.

    Well, if that's true, then surely some celiac suffer who ate Cheerios and had a bad reaction must have a box of cereal that can be tested. If General Mills is churning out box after box of gluten-tainted cereal and labeling it "gluten-free," then it seems like a massive scandal and lawsuit waiting to happen. Maybe some enterprising person, or even a law firm, can go grab some boxes and get them tested, and add some actual evidence to these claims.

    One would think Maloney and the CCA would confirm such information beforehand, rather than first making the claim, and then asking people to provide confirmation after the fact. If Maloney's claims are proven true, then General Mills deserves to be called out, and Celiac.com will certainly be among the first to report it.

    Until then, saying that General Mills is knowingly using a faulty system to sort their gluten-free oats is simply irresponsible hearsay, and doesn't really help provide accurate information for consumers with celiac disease, something the Canadian Celiac Association claims is part of its mission. It's one thing to urge caution, and to call for testing and evidence gathering that supports any claims of gluten-contamination, but it's entirely another to claim without any evidence a product and process are flawed and likely to harm people with celiac disease.

    What happens if the General Mills process turns out to be okay? What happens if Gluten-Free Cheerios and other products are perfectly safe? That means the CCA was not only wrong, they were wrong without even having any facts to support their original claim. How does that help people with celiac disease or the CCA?

    Celiac.com continues to support efforts by the CCA and other groups to inform and protect people with celiac disease, but we also urge proper facts, data, context and evidence to support any hard claims about products, gluten-free or otherwise.

    Regarding the status of General Mills' patented optical sorting process for producing gluten-free grains for their Cheerios and other gluten-free products, Celiac.com urges caution on the part of individual consumers. Currently there is no evidence to suggest that any of these products not gluten-free, but, there is also no evidence that similar gluten-free oat cereals made by smaller companies do a better job to ensure that their products are safe, yet there is no controversy about them.

    Ultimately people with celiac disease should use caution, and, in the event they experience gluten contamination, they should save the box and report it to the Canadian Celiac Association, and/ or any of the other official resources listed on the CCA website:

    Stay tuned to celiac.com for information on this and related stories.


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    My 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with celiac via blood work, endoscopy and biopsy nearly three years ago. At the time, her tTG was over 100 and the damage to her intestines was visible to the naked eye. She is well-recovered now, though susceptible to the occasional small cross-contamination. She also eats gluten-free Cheerios daily and her latest tTG numbers were perfect. Kudos to General Mills for their efforts in bringing gluten-free foods mainstream.

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    I agree. It is hard enough in a social situation to explain why I am constantly vigilant about my diet; a public perception that all celiacs are paranoid doesn't help. When I was first diagnosed, the hysteria I found on-line and in books was depressing, with warnings against white vinegar, spirits derived from grain, blue cheese, buckwheat, vanilla extract, and so on. Please -- a little more science, folks, and less rumor.

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    Why would you say that it is irresponsible for someone to think General Mills is using a faulty system? What IS irresponsible is taking gluten-filled oats, trying to remove the gluten, then not providing sufficient testing on their products. Cheerios are a "gluten removed" food. What is also irresponsible is how General Mills handled the recall - ignoring comments from sick Celiacs and claiming that they were sick because of the high fiber content. They also refuse to answer questions outside of their general statement about the recall. Nothing that General Mills is doing is responsible. You said in a comment above that this article is in response to what Samantha said on CBS - have you ever been on the news? They largely control and edit what you say for time constraints. There is always more to the story than what is briefly said in a news program.

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    Biggest concern I have is the chemical additives in Cheerios including some that are banned from commercial use but the US government says are okay to eat! Organics don't seem to have them.

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    I wasn't sure if I should put a poor or excellent rating, because I'm glad the info is being put out there, but to cast doubt on the veracity of the claims is a bit troubling. I bought a box of regular flavor gluten free Cheerios (I have celiac), and had 1 bowl, and was sick for days! I gave the box to my co-worker, who is gluten sensitive and she also got sick! She fed the rest of the box to the birds in her garden, so I don't have a sample to send in. But I was pretty miffed because I'm SO careful.

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    I was diagnosed with celiac 13 years ago and been on a gluten-free diet ever since. I have been eating Cheerios from both US and now Canada. I've eaten several boxes with no noticeable symptoms. I can usually tell when I've accidentally eaten something with gluten in it but no issues after eating Cheerios for days in a row. It's not scientific evidence but what I've experienced. For now I've stopped eating them just in case until the answer is more clear but I feel like they are okay. Just my $0.02.

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    Mr. Adams, I take issue with your mocking tone and disregard for the possibility of gluten contamination. Let's remember when the incident happened of a train car load of gluten grain was introduced into their flour, that it wasn't until celiac patients started complaining of reactions that GM never bothered to TEST the bad batch. That tells me that they lack a good process to keep me safe. I have a neurological condition caused by celiac disease. If I get any gluten I am bed bound (Ataxia, neuropathy, brain deterioration, etc) for at least six weeks and I never recover fully to where I was previously to this episode. I don't get any gut symptoms. Mine are all neurological in nature. It's called Gluten Ataxia. It seems you've even written an article about this manifestation of celiac disease. Until GM and other new to the game corporations are willing to submit to outside testing on a regular basis and not just trust their sorting system, I would be a fool to trust GM.

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    While you are addressing a timely topic, this is minor and missing the most significant problem. While I have the genetics for celiac, I did not have the disease until my late 50's. For years, I ate many wheat products without a problem. However, when I had Cheerios (regular) or Ritz crackers I had a particular GI reaction. Now I get the same reaction with any wheat product. Through these products my immune system now reacts to any gluten. I find it interesting that Meg (prior post) eats Cheerios regularly and her daughter has celiac. Daughter probably ate Cheerios frequently too, along with Mom. And, that's probably how hers developed. I'll bet a lot of people that have celiac now, were prior Cheerios and Nabisco fans.

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    This article feels written with bias. When you write about her "stories" that she's "hearing" and use quotation marks like this, your bias clearly shows. It certainly doesn't feel like both sides of the argument were thoroughly researched. I personally feel like it's the gluten free testing that is flawed when it comes to Cheerios. We will stay away from them until they adopt a safer testing procedure.

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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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