General Mills rolled out gluten-free Cheerios in the United States in 2015, and is now doing so in Canada – with its slightly different Canadian Cheerios recipe. But the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA) is not embracing the news with enthusiasm.
In fact, it is advising those with celiac disease not to consume the cereal at present. General Mills uses a modern, mechanical process of sorting regular oats to remove any gluten-containing grains (wheat, barley or rye). But in the following statement, the CCA explains its concerns about that process.
Canadian Celiac Association Statement on Gluten-Free Cheerios
General Mills Canada announced [in early August] that five Cheerios flavours sold in Canada will carry a gluten-free claim. Original Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, Multi-Grain Cheerios, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios and Chocolate Cheerios [are being] rolled out across the country in August. The Canadian Celiac Association held a conference call with representatives of General Mills Canada and General Mills US on August 2nd 2016 to discuss our concerns with the gluten-free label on these products.
The 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. The CCA is receptive to evaluating any additional information that General Mills is willing to disclose.
Why is the CCA Concerned?
Oats are a naturally gluten-free grain; however, it has been documented that oats are frequently cross-contaminated with gluten-containing grains, especially barley and wheat. Health Canada scientists have tested commercial oat samples and found high levels of gluten contamination. Cross-contamination can occur because oats often are grown in rotation with other crops, harvested and transported with equipment that is also used for gluten-containing grains.
We know the following:
- Oats are an extremely high risk grain and even “gluten-free oats” are at high risk for gluten contamination.
- It is very difficult to remove gluten-containing grains from oats using optical and mechanical 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.
- General Mills is using a cleaning system that they developed based on mechanical sorting to remove barley and wheat from regular commercial oats.
- Gluten contamination in oats is not distributed evenly through a batch; therefore, “hot spots” of high contamination can occur.
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 those contaminated oats. As a result, 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.
The CCA is 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.
Canadian Celiac Association’s Position on the Safety of Oats
The CCA relies on advice from our Professional Advisory Council (PAC) and other scientific experts for recommendations on the safety of oats for people with celiac disease. The PAC “Position statement on consumption of oats by individuals with celiac disease” indicates the need for evidence-based, peer-reviewed, published data that demonstrates the levels of gluten in oats that have been cleaned using mechanical and/or optical sorting procedures.
There are three product brands currently on the market made with gluten-free oats that are manufactured in facilities certified by the CCA’s Gluten-Free Certification Program (GFCP): Holy Crap Plus Gluten Free Oats, Quaker Oats (several types) and Nairn (several products). These companies have demonstrated to independent parties, trained GFCP 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.
What if I Eat Cheerios and Have a Problem?
We realize that some people with celiac disease will decide to eat Cheerios. The CCA recommends that if you experience a reaction to the cereal, you should notify the Canadian Food Inspection Agency or MAPAQ (in Quebec), General Mills Canada, the store that sold you the package and the CCA.