In spite of General Mills releasing five varieties of gluten-free Cheerios in Canada this summer, the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA) recommends that “people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity DO NOT consume the gluten-free labeled Cheerios products at this time because of concerns about the potential levels of gluten in boxes of these cereals.”
But oats are gluten free, right?
Oats are naturally gluten free but they are highly susceptible to cross-contamination with gluten-containing grains such as wheat and barley. This can occur in the fields, during harvest and while being transported. For oats to remain gluten free, they need to be grown and processed very carefully to maintain separation, thereby preventing cross-contamination.
The CCA website endorses three brands of gluten-free oats that are grown on dedicated fields then harvested, stored, transported and processed in gluten-free facilities. “These companies have demonstrated to independent parties, trained GFCP [Gluten-Free Certification Program] auditors and GFCP technical personnel that both their processed oats and finished products meet Health Canada’s standard for gluten free and are safe for individuals with celiac disease,” according to the CCA
The oats used in gluten-free Cheerios are not kept separate from field to factory. Instead, General Mills utilizes mechanical technology to sort regular commercial oats from wheat and barley. The CCA has concerns about this method, saying “It is very difficult to remove gluten-containing grains from oats using optical and technical technology alone because barley and wheat are similar in size, shape and color as oats. Broken kernels present in the grain also add to the sorting challenge.”
Concern over hot spots
The CCA’s scientific advisors also have concerns regarding so-called “hot spots” of high contamination in the mechanically sorted oats. Gluten contamination in-oat is not distributed evenly through a batch, and questions remain about what this means from box to box and the ability to detect contamination.
“Based on the information provided to date, our scientific advisors are not convinced that the testing procedures described by General Mills are sufficient to detect these contamination ‘hot spots’ in the oats and oat flour or in the boxes of cereal that may contain contaminated oats,” says the CCA. As a result of uneven gluten distribution in a given batch, “some boxes of cereal in the market may be safe for people with celiac disease while others contain significant gluten contamination that has not been detected using current testing protocols.”
General Mills’ stance
When contacted, General Mills offered their assurance on the gluten-free status of the Cheerios. “We are confident our Cheerios that are labeled ‘gluten free’ meet the gluten-free standard in Canada, which is less than 20 parts per million of gluten in the product,” Mike Siemienas, Manager, Brand Media Relations for General Mills, wrote in an email. “At General Mills, food safety and the health of our consumers is our top priority. We perform extensive testing of our Cheerios products throughout production to ensure they meet and exceed Health Canada’s standard.”
In their published notice, the CCA states they are “receptive to evaluating any additional information that General Mills is willing to disclose. Until then, the CCA stands by its advice that people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should not consume Cheerios products in spite of the gluten-free claim.”
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