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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    Is Oat Sensitivity the Overlooked Culprit in Claims of Gluten in Cheerios?

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      Journal of Gluten Sensitivity Winter 2017 Issue


    Caption: Are oats more likely to cause an issue for celiacs eating gluten-free Cheerios? Photo: Don O'Brien

    Celiac.com 12/13/2016 - One in five people with celiac disease have a sensitivity to oats. Could that be the real issue behind claims of adverse reactions to Cheerios and other General Mills products?

    In an effort to answer questions regarding the safety of gluten-free Cheerios for people with celiac disease, we recently ran an article on warnings by the Canadian Celiac Association that Cheerios, and other General Mills cereals labeled 'Gluten-Free' are unsafe, are likely to be contaminated with trace amounts of gluten.

    Celiac.com found those claims to be lacking in evidence, and grounded mainly on unsupported claims that the proprietary process used by General Mills to sort oats is somehow problematic, and likely to permit 'hot spots' of gluten contamination that can exceed the 20ppm gluten-free FDA standard. Along with unsupported claims about General Mills' sorting process, the Canadian Celiac Association seems to base their opinion on vague claims of unnamed people with celiac disease suffering adverse reactions after eating the cereals.

    Yet, so far, no one has documented any actual problem with General Mills' method for sorting gluten-free oats, and certainly no one has shown any kind of a systemic problem, as the Canadian Celiac Association seems to allege. No evidence has been offered up to support any such claims. Again, to our knowledge, no one has provided any evidence of any actual gluten contamination in any box or batch of General Mills Gluten-Free cereals. Interestingly, that very lack of evidence to support claims of gluten contamination is cited by the Celiac Disease Foundation in its endorsement of General Mills Gluten-Free cereals.

    Recent scientific research has shown that around 8% of celiacs are sensitive to certain varieties of oats, and the Celiac Disease Foundation recently indicated in a response to a question on this topic posed by "cyclinglady," who is a Celiac.com board moderator, that nearly 20% of people with celiac disease may also suffer from oat sensitivity, and they suggest that oat sensitivity is the likely culprit behind any sensitivities to the product.

    The Celiac Disease Foundation's full letter was posted on Celiac.com's Gluten-Free Forum by cyclinglady reads as follows: "This is interesting. I sent an email asking the Celiac Disease Foundation about gluten-free Cheerios which they endorse/support, but the Canadian Celiac Disease Organization and the Gluten Free Watchdog do not? What do you all think?"

    She includes the
    , which reads:


    "Aside from the initial contamination in Cheerios when they were first put on the market, Cheerios has had no other issues with the gluten-free status of their cereals. Most people with celiac disease can tolerate gluten-free oats, however, about 20%
    *
    (sic-actual figure should be 8%, see note below)
    of the population with celiac disease cannot tolerate oats in any form, even if they are gluten-free. It's that population that should avoid Cheerios. Our Medical Advisory Board has no evidence that General Mills gluten-free cereals are not safe for celiac consumption. General Mills is a proud sponsor of Celiac Disease Foundation, and they understand the importance of safe gluten-free food to our community. In fact, we enjoy Cheerios at the National Office ourselves where half of us have celiac disease. Cheerios only need to be avoided by those with celiac disease who also cannot tolerate oats."

    So, once again, the Celiac Disease Foundation endorses General Mills Gluten-Free Cheerios, and by implication, Lucky Charms and other cereals, as safe for people with celiac disease, with no medical evidence to the contrary. However, they do recommend that people with oat sensitivities avoid oat products. This runs counter to the warning by the Canadian Celiac Association that General Mills products were "unsafe" and the General Mills "had problems" with its sorting process.

    The fact that the folks at the Celiac Disease Foundation, including those with celiac disease, say they eat Gluten-Free Cheerios provides another positive testimonial that Cheerios are safe for people with celiac disease. However, it really all boils down to basing any proclamations about gluten-free safety on actual evidence, not stories, or opinions, or things we heard.

    In their letter, the Celiac Disease Foundation notes that "Our Medical Advisory Board has no evidence that General Mills gluten-free cereals are not safe for celiac consumption."

    Until evidence appears to the contrary, the overwhelming evidence is that General Mills gluten-free Cereals, including Cheerios and Lucky Charms, among others, are safe for people with celiac disease, but should be avoided by anyone with oat sensitivities.

    Anyone claiming they are not safe for people with celiac disease is simply not basing their claim on hard evidence. Of course, people should base their diets on their own experience, especially people with celiac disease, and/or sensitivities to oats or other things beyond gluten.

     Stay tuned for news on this and other important gluten-free topics.

    Sources:

    This article was updated on 12/14/2016 to include more sources, and to clarify the CDF's letter that was posted in our forum.
    *Corrected to 8% on 12/14/2016 per CDF web site


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    The author failed to report the Gluten Free Watchdog´s stand on gluten-free Cheerios. This is an independent group who tests gluten-free products (comparable to Consumer Reports). They, along with the Canadian Association, do not recommend gluten-free Cheerios for reasons stated on their website. The author also failed to note that the CDF is sponsored by General Mills, which is obviously a conflict of interest. "For the past 25 years, Celiac Disease Foundation has fought tirelessly for the food industry to provide celiac disease patients, and those with gluten sensitivity, safe, abundant, and affordable dietary options. We were excited, therefore, that General Mills, our partner for many years in their gluten-free initiatives, asked us to share that one of America's most iconic breakfast cereals – Cheerios – can now be safely enjoyed by people who must maintain a strict gluten-free diet. I traveled to Minneapolis this past year and listened as General Mills outlined the millions of dollars it had invested in its sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, and shipping processes to assure that, going forward, Cheerios were indeed gluten-free. Thus, you can imagine how deeply disappointed we were to learn that nearly two million boxes of Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios were being recalled by General Mills because of gluten contamination." Read more at https://celiac.org/blog/2015/10/marilyns-message-october-2015/#XJWgXQ705DTo6Mmk.99

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    The author failed to report the Gluten Free Watchdog´s stand on gluten-free Cheerios. This is an independent group who tests gluten-free products (comparable to Consumer Reports). They, along with the Canadian Association, do not recommend gluten-free Cheerios for reasons stated on their website. The author also failed to note that the CDF is sponsored by General Mills, which is obviously a conflict of interest. "For the past 25 years, Celiac Disease Foundation has fought tirelessly for the food industry to provide celiac disease patients, and those with gluten sensitivity, safe, abundant, and affordable dietary options. We were excited, therefore, that General Mills, our partner for many years in their gluten-free initiatives, asked us to share that one of America's most iconic breakfast cereals – Cheerios – can now be safely enjoyed by people who must maintain a strict gluten-free diet. I traveled to Minneapolis this past year and listened as General Mills outlined the millions of dollars it had invested in its sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, and shipping processes to assure that, going forward, Cheerios were indeed gluten-free. Thus, you can imagine how deeply disappointed we were to learn that nearly two million boxes of Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios were being recalled by General Mills because of gluten contamination." Read more at https://celiac.org/blog/2015/10/marilyns-message-october-2015/#XJWgXQ705DTo6Mmk.99

    The focus of the article is the possibility that oat intolerance is actually causing anecdotal reports of wheat gluten contamination in Cheerios, which is covered here. gluten-free Watchdog cannot be, in any way, compared with Consumer Reports, and they have not, as far as we know, released the data on their Cheerios testing, which they promised to do in their blog on this topic. We invite them to do so.

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    I ate gluten-free cheerios on three occasions and had the same reaction that I get when I eat oat: canker sores, pimples in my butt, dandruff, etc. So, it is not a choice for me.

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    As a person with celiac disease who is equally intolerant of gliadin (wheat), hordein (barley), secalin (rye) and avenin (oats), this article makes a lot of sense. (Though, I have to say, the phrase "oat sensitivity" makes light of the actual experience!) I would love to see more research on those of us with celiac disease who get the autoimmune reaction to avenin (oats). Also, it would be great in the future to see "oats" and "cross-contamination with oats" called out on approved gluten-free labels to assist the unfortunate 8 to 20% (?) of us who can´t tolerate them. But it is nice that those with celiac disease who don't have the oats problem can enjoy Cheerios!

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    I am sensitive to oats as well as gluten-free oats. For the holidays, I would like to make gluten-free "oatmeal" cookies or a cranberry or cherry crumb topping bars (that the recipe calls for oats). Is there a substitute for something like oats (that provides the same texture)? Quinoa flakes?

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    I can eat oat cereals that are tested to 5ppm. They use certified gluten free oats: oats that never had contact with wheat or other grains unsafe for celiacs. Cheerios have too much gluten in their oats from contamination by contact with other grains from the process of harvesting and trucking. If you can tolerate them; good, in happy for you. I'm disappointed I still can't eat Cheerios, a favorite food of the past.

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    I am the 1 out of 5 that unfortunately can not eat general mills cereal. I have finely realized that I can not tolerate any form of oats. I am very careful with what I eat and when the gluten-free cereal first hit the market I gave it a try, several actually, always having the same ill effect. I now realized its the oats. I also have realized that the cream of rice that is suppose to be gluten-free, is also something I can not tolerate.

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    I penned this email to GM just over a year ago about this issue: "I write to express my concern with the growing trend in American food of reflexively labeling all oats that are not cross-contaminated with wheat or other grains as "gluten free" and "safe for celiacs." In the medical literature, the non-immunogenicity of oats is by no means solidified. In fact, it is likely that there may only be one or two strains of oats that do not cause immune reaction in celiacs. I don't know if GM or other companies who advertise "gluten free oats" are aware of this literature and only source oats of the strains thought not to be immunogenic in celiacs. If not, then I feel that declaring the oats safe for celiacs is not just misleading (if not outright false advertising), but also unethical. Even many well-informed celiacs are unaware of this body of literature, and if they take food manufacturers' claims in good faith, they may be completely unaware they could still be damaging their bodies by consuming these foods. A lion's share of responsibility falls on food manufacturers to be aware of this literature, inform their consumers about it, and source only the non-immunogenic strains of oats. Cheerios' latest 'fireside [breakfast table] chat' commercial endorsing gluten free Cheerios is extremely concerning to me. No acknowledgement of the controversy surrounding immunogenicity of oats is made, and the commercial portrays non-cross-contaminated oats as obviously gluten-free (which for all intents and purposes to celiac consumers means "non-immunogenic"), when this is NOT the case. I feel it is irresponsible and needlessly places celiac consumers at risk. Of course, it's readily assumed this move is being made because of the massive financial market that gluten-free foods have come to represent and GM's intent to cash in on this market. This growth of the gluten-free market has led to some unfortunate incidents of intentional deception--you might be familiar with a baker in North Carolina who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for knowingly selling non-gluten-free bread as gluten-free, sickening his customers. There's big money in gluten-free, and big money changes behavior. I would hope the ethics of GM upstanding enough to not consider that a similar process could be occurring in GM's marketing of gluten-free Cheerios, when the jury is so clearly out on the safety of oats. This hits at my concern about Cheerios' recent advertisement for gluten-free Cheerios, which is so different than the tenor of most Cheerios commercials. I would encourage you to have the GM food scientists review the following article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3524229/ and other articles such as these: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/?term=oats+gluten As I am in healthcare, and having done large amounts of literature review since I was diagnosed with celiac disease 13 years ago, I do my best to scrutinize all companies' claims about gluten-free foods, not only for my own sake, but to keep companies above-board for the protection of the celiacs who don't have access to all the information. Thank you for taking the time to consider my concerns."Here was all the reply I got: "Thank you for contacting Cheerios. Your comments are important to our business. Please be assured that we will share them with the appropriate individuals."Hardly encouraging. I'm sure my email went straight into the trash. Money trumps all, and there is BIG big money in gluten free.

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    Guest tortoiseshell on white

    Posted

    The author failed to report the Gluten Free Watchdog´s stand on gluten-free Cheerios. This is an independent group who tests gluten-free products (comparable to Consumer Reports). They, along with the Canadian Association, do not recommend gluten-free Cheerios for reasons stated on their website. The author also failed to note that the CDF is sponsored by General Mills, which is obviously a conflict of interest. "For the past 25 years, Celiac Disease Foundation has fought tirelessly for the food industry to provide celiac disease patients, and those with gluten sensitivity, safe, abundant, and affordable dietary options. We were excited, therefore, that General Mills, our partner for many years in their gluten-free initiatives, asked us to share that one of America's most iconic breakfast cereals – Cheerios – can now be safely enjoyed by people who must maintain a strict gluten-free diet. I traveled to Minneapolis this past year and listened as General Mills outlined the millions of dollars it had invested in its sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, and shipping processes to assure that, going forward, Cheerios were indeed gluten-free. Thus, you can imagine how deeply disappointed we were to learn that nearly two million boxes of Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios were being recalled by General Mills because of gluten contamination." Read more at https://celiac.org/blog/2015/10/marilyns-message-october-2015/#XJWgXQ705DTo6Mmk.99

    Cheerios "simply gluten-free" ARE NOT GLUTEN FREE!!!!!! Don't you get it! The labeling should say "CERTIFIED GLUTEN-FREE"! But the labeling does not say this!!! Let the gluten-free manufacturers make gluten-free cereal for celiac disease patients, like myself! I will never eat Cheerios ever AGAIN!!!!! If General Mills is having such a hard time with dealing with gluten contamination.....then let the gluten-free manufacturers create gluten-free cereal! Leave it alone! Just create your own cereal containing wheat! You are making celiac disease patients even sicker! Just please STOP MAKING Cheerios "simply gluten-free"! Just do it!!!! You are harming more people undue ill health. Look at what you are doing! You label for Cheerios "simply gluten-free" IS NOT, and I stress this tremendously, IS NOT GLUTEN-FREE! I plan to call the FDA and tell them to order you to stop making 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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