Should You Eat Gluten-Free Cheerios?

Are gluten-free Cheerios REALLY safe if you have celiac or gluten sensitivity?

gluten-free Cheerios
Are gluten-free Cheerios safe?. © Jane M. Anderson

Cereal manufacturer General Mills rolled out gluten-free Cheerios with great fanfare, including an ad campaign describing how it takes regular oats and sifts them to make sure there's no wheat, barley or rye in there.

The gluten-free community giddily welcomed the addition of Cheerios to the list of mainstream products that we can now eat. However, there are numerous anecdotal reports of people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity getting sick from their Cheerios, and some experts are warning we shouldn't trust them.

So what's the truth — are Cheerios safe or not?

Should You Eat Gluten-Free Cheerios?

Shortly after the company rolled out its gluten-free Cheerios, it recalled 1.8 million boxes due to undisclosed wheat. At least 125 people reported getting sick from this, according to the Food and Drug Administration. 

It seems that the wheat in the Cheerios resulted from two errors: 1) someone inadvertently substituted wheat flour for oat flour as the Cheerios were being made (or possibly cross-contaminated the oat flour at the loading dock), and 2) the company failed to test the finished product (which it said it was doing daily) for two weeks, at the same time the wheat use or cross-contamination occurred.

Based on this rather stunning lack of corporate caution and safety (right in the middle of the product launch, no less!), I can't recommend that anyone with celiac or gluten sensitivity consume Cheerios.

General Mills now faces a potential class action suit as a result of this incident. 

It's possible General Mills will redeem itself (although it will have trouble doing so in my eyes). If you believe the company has redeemed itself — if the reports of illness die down, for example, and you feel the company has learned its lesson — then there are still arguments against eating Cheerios, but it will be a less clear-cut case.

If General Mills can keep gluten grains out of its supply chain, and if it follows its own daily testing and gluten safety protocol, then the new gluten-free Cheerios should be safe (i.e., not cause a gluten reaction) for some people, and not safe for others. This could be on a box-by-box basis, too — you may be fine with one box and react to the next.

In fact, the Canadian Celiac Association is recommending against consumption of gluten-free Cheerios, due to the possibility of cross-contamination from gluten grains.

What Should You Do About Gluten-Free Cheerios?

So what should you do? Well, you'll need to make your own decision on whether to take a chance with gluten-free Cheerios, based on your answers to these five questions:

1) Can you eat gluten-free oats? Cheerios — including the new gluten-free Cheerios varieties — contain oats. In fact, oats are the main ingredient. 

Now, some people with celiac disease also get sick from oats, while others don't. The problem for those who do get sick (about 10% to 15% of everyone with celiac) is that the main protein in oats, known as avenin, has some similarities to gluten, the problematic protein in wheat. There haven't been any studies on how many people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity react to oats, but some of those with the condition report that they do get sick, too.

If you've experimented with oats in the past and found they don't agree with you, you should steer clear of Cheerios — you're unlikely to get a different result.

2) How sensitive are you to trace gluten? Most people with celiac or gluten sensitivity who do eat oats make certain to source oats that are grown gluten-free. That's because farmers who grow oats also tend to grow other crops, including gluten grains, and use the same equipment to harvest, store and transport all their grains, making gluten cross-contamination common in oats that aren't specifically grown to avoid it.

General Mills isn't using gluten-free oats to make its gluten-free Cheerios (there just aren't enough gluten-free oats out there to meet the demand).

Instead, the company has developed a process that sorts and sifts the raw grains to weed out anything that's not oats, especially wheat, barley and rye.

The problem is, this process isn't perfect — inevitably, some bits of gluten grains will get through the sorting process and be baked into the finished Cheerios. Dietitian Tricia Thompson, who heads the testing organization Gluten-Free Watchdog, tested samples from three boxes of plain Cheerios and found gluten levels up to 7 parts per million (here's what parts per million means for us).

Now, the "legal" limit to call a product "gluten-free" is less than 20 parts per million of gluten, so Cheerios likely meet that "gluten-free" standard. But there are plenty of people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity who react to far less gluten than that (learn more in How Much Gluten Can Make Me Sick?).

Also, it's quite possible that other boxes will have higher levels than those Thompson found, possibly even levels that can't legally be called "gluten-free" (one batch produced when the company was testing its sorting protocol contained more than four times the legal limit for gluten). Thompson currently does not recommend that celiacs consume Cheerios.

If you tend to react to lower levels of gluten, you should steer clear of gluten-free Cheerios. It's also possible to be fine with one box and to get sick from another box that has higher levels of trace gluten, so if you do choose to eat them, be careful.

3) Are you overdoing the oats? Even if you have no problem eating oats, it's possible to overdo it — celiac experts advise starting slowly (eating only a tablespoon or two) and ultimately consuming no more than about 50 grams of oats per day. 

Given that plain Cheerios contain mainly oats, and two cups of the cereal will total about 50 grams, it's possible your digestive tract will rebel if you eat a ton of Cheerios, especially at first. So resist the urge to binge on a long-denied nostalgic favorite food, and instead experiment with small servings to see how it goes.

4) How do you react to fiber? Thompson points out that some people reporting reactions to Cheerios could be reacting instead to increased fiber in their diets.

Now, we all need fiber, and of course many of us don't get enough of it. Plain Cheerios contain about 3 grams of fiber per one-cup serving, so it's entirely possible that someone whose diet has been devoid of fiber might experience some intestinal, ahem, difficulties when adding in a bowl or two of Cheerios.

5) Are you buying the right kind of Cheerios? If this is your problem with Cheerios, it's the simplest one to solve: with all the publicity and hype generated over gluten-free Cheerios, it's easy to gloss over the fact that not all Cheerios flavors are considered gluten-free.

Right now, General Mills is offering plain (so-called "Yellow Box") Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, MultiGrain Cheerios, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios and Frosted Cheerios as gluten-free products.

The flavors that are not gluten-free include Protein, Chocolate, Fruity, Dolce, Banana Nut, Multi-Grain Dark Chocolate, Multi-Grain Peanut Butter, and Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch.

Make sure you look for a box prominently labeled "gluten-free" on the lower right corner.

The Bottom Line

Gluten-free Cheerios will be fine for some in the gluten-free community, but others will not be able to eat them. In addition, some experts are recommending you don't eat them. Nonetheless, you'll need to make your own decision based on the facts at hand and what you know about your own body's reaction to oats and to trace gluten.

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