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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

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

      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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    One very important fact is omitted in this article: Many people with celiac disease stopped buying/eating "gluten-free" Cheerios and oatmeal products after getting sick once. We are not idiots; we do not like being sick and endangering our long-term health; these General Mills products are simply not important enough to us to be worth the risk. If people with celiac disease stopped using the products after being sick once, then how many people are left to complain?

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    Thank you for this article. I am a celiac (diagnosed in March 1990. I eat Honey Nut Cheerios every morning and have not had any discomfort whatsoever.

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    I'm in Canada and our standard for gluten-free is more strict then the USA. To label a product gluten-free it must be tested and contain less then 20 ppm. If it doesn't meet or exceed this standard it cannot be labelled gluten-free. Many people with Celiac and Gluten Sensitivity cannot tolerate oats and I think this is where all the complaints are coming from. It's getting blown out of proportion. One person has a reaction and then claims the product is bad - when in reality it is that one person having an adverse reaction to oats. Great article - keep up with the facts. And I do believe Canada gets our Cheerios from the USA plant - which would mean they far exceed the USA's gluten-free Standard of 20 ppm.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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    Thinking outside the box, there are other possibilities why those with celiac disease and NCGS may react to Cheerios. Note, for example, that Cheerios is shelved among traditional gluten cereals at the store. Once at the store, normal handling, from shelving to checkout, exposes the packages to additional external cross-contamination. It may be insignificant for many, but not all. I have personally (albeit, anecdotally) experienced this problem with packaged gluten-free bread stuffed among the wheat bread sold at a day-old outlet store. Another consideration is that some celiacs react to certified-gluten-free oats. Personally (again, anecdotally) I react to gluten-free oats with celiac symptoms when I exceed a certain amount in a certain time period, yet my blood work comes back negative for gluten in my system. Another alternative explanation is that some people experience a reaction when a new food is introduced, especially a processed food. Finally, with respect to processed foods and foods with more than five ingredients. like Cheerios, there is the chance that a reaction to any one or combination of the other ingredients may occur. The caveat noted in the article is one to live by!

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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.

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    There are two important confounding factors that make all your calculations rather meaningless from a scientific standpoint. First, you don't know how many sensitive individuals got sick from the Cheerios/Lucky Charms and just didn't bother to report it. Second, you don't know how many sensitive people had a reaction but couldn't pinpoint the source. The second point has an additional factor in that if the cereal the affected person ate was the cause of their reaction, but they trusted it's gluten free status, they probably mis-attributed to another food source and therefore wouldn't have reported it.

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    Thank you for the article. You put numbers to the claim and clarified those numbers very well. I was worried when I started to read this since we have two big boxes of Cheerios and have been eating with no problems. Thanks again for the investigation!

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams 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 biology, anatomy, medicine, and science. He previously served as Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and provided 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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