The news that General Mills is making five flavors of its popular Cheerios cereal gluten free is being greeted with both enthusiasm and suspicion in the gluten-free community.
While many gluten-free consumers are excited to be able to eat Cheerios again, some are troubled by General Mills’ decision to use oats that are mechanically processed to eliminate cross-contamination from gluten-containing grains instead of oats that are specifically grown to be gluten free.
The company will begin shipping the new gluten-free Cheerios to stores in July, and the products are expected to be on shelves in August and September. From then on the five flavors will only be made in the gluten-free version, much like many of the company’s Chex cereals, said Mike Siemienas, a Cheerios spokesman. The price of Cheerios will not change as a result of going gluten free.
What kind of oats?
Oats used to make the cereal will go through a proprietary, mechanical system to remove any cross-contamination from wheat, barley or rye, according to General Mills. The removal process takes place after the oats are delivered to the cereal processing plant.
“We have good engineers who through years of work came up with a new process that came out with pure oats that are gluten free,” Siemienas said.
He said he could not discuss the nitty gritty details of the process because of the competitive nature of the business.
General Mills did consider using specialty gluten-free oats, which are grown in way that prevents cross-contamination from the time the seeds are planted, but the company concluded its own process was better after extensive testing.
“We tested both options and are going with the one that provides the greatest consistency for our product,” Siemienas said.
The mechanically processed oats are not currently being used in General Mills’ Gluten Free Chex Oatmeal, but Siemienas said the company is “looking into the possibility of moving to the oats that will be used in Cheerios.”
The FDA standard
He also noted that the gluten-free Cheerios, as well as the other 600 gluten-free products sold by General Mills, meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration standard of less than 20 parts per million of gluten in foods labeled gluten free.
“We take very seriously the safety because we know people with celiac disease can’t come in contact with gluten. We make sure we meet the FDA requirements,” Siemienas said.
Steve L. Taylor, Ph.D., co-director of the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an expert in gluten testing, said in an email that General Mills has taken a very serious corporate position on gluten free and has been an industry leader on the development of gluten-free products.
“If General Mills indicates that Cheerios are gluten free, then I would believe that they are indeed gluten free,” he said. “I also personally know that General Mills is a very cautious company and that they would be unlikely to take any chances with the labeling decision.”
The oats being used by General Mills in the gluten-free Cheerios are tested after they have been processed. Any that do not meet the standard are not used to make the cereals, Siemienas said. The finished cereal is also tested, he noted, and testing goes on daily.
Original, Honey Nut, Apple Cinnamon and Frosted flavors won’t require any change
beyond the use of uncontaminated oats. Multi-Grain Cheerios will also be reformulated to replace wheat and barley with gluten-free sorghum and millet.
While many gluten-free consumers welcomed news that the cereal is now on the gluten-free list, others questioned the use of regular oats versus specialty oats, the secrecy surrounding the process used to purify them and the lack of third-party certification of the cereals.
The FDA considers oats to be a gluten-free grain and does not require the use of specialty oats in foods with a gluten-free label under gluten-free rules finalized in 2014. Products that contain oats must meet the 20 ppm standard in the finished food. Food companies are not required to test products to be sure they meet the standard but are subject to regulatory action and recall if a random inspection or investigation as a result of consumer complaint determines a product contains more gluten than allowed.
Before the FDA rules went into effect, only specialty gluten-free oats were allowed in foods with a gluten-free label. Mainstream oats are highly likely to be cross-contaminated by wheat, barley and rye in the field, in shared harvesting equipment and trucks used for shipping and in shared mills where the grains are processed. As result they are not considered safe on the gluten-free diet. General Mills is the first large company to claim to be able to process mainstream oats in way that removes enough cross-contamination to make them safe for gluten-free consumers.
Some consumers said they would be more willing to trust the mechanically processed oats if General Mills had independent third-party certification for products that contain them. Most certification groups have standards stricter than the FDA, requiring that products test to less than 10 ppm or less.
Siemienas said General Mills does not use third-party certification because the requirements vary among the certification groups, and the certification does not come from the FDA. “Ultimately all General Mills products meet the FDA standard,” Siemienas said.
“General Mills is making this claim on their packaging, and it is therefore their corporate responsibility to assure that this statement is accurate,” Taylor said. He added that he does not think third-party certification would add real value if General Mills is already doing its own extensive testing for gluten residue similar to the testing a certification group would provide.
Oats were once prohibited on the gluten-free diet altogether because of the high risk of cross-contamination. But that changed after several companies developed specialty gluten-free oats by painstakingly keep gluten-containing grains out of their fields—sometimes picking errant wheat, barley or rye out by hand. These companies also use specialty seeds and take steps to prevent cross-contamination when transporting and milling the oats.
While uncontaminated oats are considered safe for the majority of those who have celiac disease, patients are advised to introduce oats into their diets slowly because of the increase in fiber. Less than 1 percent of those with celiac disease react to very large amounts of oats in their diets, according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.
Seaton Smith, an owner of GF Harvest, a specialty gluten-free oats producer, has celiac disease but remembers what Cheerios taste like and would like to enjoy them again. “But not without certified gluten-free oats in them,” he wrote in an email.
He noted that he and two other North American gluten-free oat companies fought a 10-year battle to produce specialty oats and get them to be allowed on the gluten-free diet.
“If [General Mills] is interested in making a gluten-free product, why not use some of the readily available certified gluten-free oats or at least have a third-party agency such as the Gluten Free Certification Organization certify this product?” he asked.
Taylor questioned whether it would even be possible for General Mills to use specialty gluten-free oats. “Current producers of specialty gluten-free oats do not likely have enough combined total production to meet the raw material needs of General Mills for gluten-free Cheerios production. Cheerios is a very big brand. So that option likely does not exist for General Mills for logistical reasons,” he said.
Siemienas said General Mills has a continuing commitment to the gluten-free consumer versus an interest in the gluten-free fad. “The fact that we worked on this for several years and did not rush to get a gluten-free product out shows that we are making sure it is safe,” he said.
Keep up with the latest gluten-free product news
Sign up for our free e-newsletter to be the first to know about our newest gluten-free recipes, news, articles and more.