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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

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

      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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    I have known for a long time I may have more than one protein sensitivity, oats as well. Suspect I will be sickly the rest of my life. How unfortunate since this problem robs me of the better part of my happiness everyday. Thanks for the article, Hopefully it will help to enlighten people who are gluten free but, wonder why their still sick or sickly.

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    I don't buy it, I can eat certified gluten-free oats just fine, zero reaction. The only time I have issues is when eating the supposedly gluten-free Cheerios. Has anyone actually tested the stuff for levels below 20ppm. This legal limit stuff is ridiculous!

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    My GI told me to avoid oats for the first year after celiac diagnosis. He said after that, most celiacs can tolerate oats (but some cannot). There was a lengthy scientific explanation that went with this advice. I followed his advice. I reintroduced oats at about 1.5 years gluten-free. I had the same reaction as I do to gluten. I went another year or so, and tried oats again...same reaction as I have to gluten...again. I've tried this a few times, using different sources of certified gluten-free oats. It's always the same. As much as I would love to be able to bake with gluten-free oats, it's just not in the cards for me. My GI (to simplify things here) basically said that Avenin (the protein in oats) so closely resembles Gliadin (in gluten), that the immune system can be "tricked" and launch the same autoimmune response when oats are ingested. A long break from both proteins would hopefully clear my body of the immune cells that were waiting in the wings (had already been called to response at one time and were now at the ready for any offenders). New introductions of oats, after a long break from both avenin and gliadin, would hopefully not generate the autoimmune reaction. I've had Celiac Disease for 3 years now. I've just resigned myself...I'm one of those unlucky people who also must avoid oats.

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    I have celiac disease and am able to eat gluten-free oatmeal all the time, but I always get sick after eating Cheerios. I tried to convince myself it was in my head or just coincidence but after about the 10th box (over a long period of time... not all at once), I finally gave up and realized I just can't eat Cheerios.

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    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.

    There seems to be a lot of conflicting information out there as to what is considered gluten free and what people with celiac disease can and cannot eat. This is only confounded by the inability of the different foundations trying to serve those with celiac disease in being able to come up with a single consensus, as your article states between the U.S. and the Canadian viewpoint. This might be addressed by a book that I just finished reading by Dr. Peter Osborne called ´No grain, no pain´ in which he points out that a lot of the symptoms and increase of symptoms or aggravation of symptoms is caused by consuming a so-called gluten-free diet. A lot of ingredients in foods he says still contain types of gluten that can aggravate autoimmune disease. One of them is quinoa, another is white rice where he recommends wild brown rice instead. Other things he says that cause flare-ups or aggravate the bowels or cause allergies which is a huge part of our immune system diseases is the use of plastic containers, sport water bottles or Tupperware type containers as chemicals from them can leach into food. The prevailing thought is that if you consume something and it doesn't kill you right away, then it's okay for you. But what I've seen in my daughter's case is the opposite. She was diagnosed as having celiac disease in 2009, and then put on a faithfully-followed gluten-free diet. Since then she has also developed colitis in 2012, and now this summer may also have Crohn's disease. The diet isn't working. Doctors don't seem to have a consensus of what to do except throwing different combinations of drugs at the situation. But the profound thing that the book addresses is the simple ma that we are what we eat. With all the processing of food that even if it's so-called gluten-free it´s still processed food. We need to get back to the basics of foods that we originally ate before giant food companies took over our diet with foods altered and packaged primarily for long shelf life and the convenience of ready to eat, and not necessarily what we need or can tolerate. After all our bodies weren't meant to consume all these chemicals and artificial ingredients that are pumped into them. It's no surprise that autoimmune diseases are on the rise with all of the artificial ingredients that are in our diet. I encourage everyone to read this book as I was a skeptic before I read it, but afterwards saw that it spelled out pretty clearly what my daughter's been going through even down to the cases of her having eczema, dandruff, bloating, sore joints, all of which are all addressed in the book. He also offers an alternative diet free of the things that trigger autoimmune disease. But the best part is that it's food that you buy in your local store, and not some diet club that you have to join. Pain in our daily life he claims is caused by grain intake, especially arthritis and migraines. But don't believe me, inform yourself like I did, and borrow it from the library if you're not sure before reading. After you read it you´ll buy it like I did for reference. Food for thought.

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    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!

    To our knowledge, there have been no confirmed reports of gluten contamination in Cheerios, or in other General Mills products labeled "gluten-free." Please let us know how the FDA responds to your complaint.

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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

    I don't think accepting support from General Mills is necessarily a problem, as the CDF has a well-earned reputation for celiac disease support for many years now. The question is whether Cheerios are safe for people with celiac disease, and the answer so far seems to be "yes." Absent a smoking gun showing systematic gluten-contamination, I think it's reasonable to assume Cheerios are gluten-free. That said, people should not eat food that makes them sick, and should report any suspected gluten-contamination to the FDA and/or General Mills.

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    Never was a huge Cheerios fan, but my husband likes the Honey Nut ones, so they're always around. I've had them maybe a dozen times since they went gluten free and have never had a problem. I've eaten Lucky Charms (which I *did* always love as a kid) several times since they went gluten-free also, and no problems.

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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, science, and advanced research, and scientific methods. He previously served as 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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