General Mills “Gluten-Free” Cheerios: Comment from Gluten Free Watchdog
Update July 22, 2015: Please see Gluten Free Watchdog’s updated statement on Gluten-Free Cheerios https://www.glutenfreewatchdog.org/news/gluten-free-cheerios-take-two/
Update March 29, 2015: Gluten-Free Cheerios, Grain Millers, Oats, and Mechanical “Cleaning”
As Gluten Free Watchdog reported in February, General Mills is using a proprietary mechanical sorting process to remove wheat and barley from the oats they will use in their gluten-free Cheerios. In general, mechanical cleaning of grains separates out unwanted materials based on size, shape, and color among other attributes.
Mechanical sorting/cleaning of grains is nothing new. (If you are interested in learning the history of this process please see the USDA publication issued in 1968 available at http://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/CAT87208718/PDF). What is new (relatively speaking) is the use of mechanical sorting to “clean” the oats enough to result in a gluten-free product.
Note: Oats are considered a naturally gluten-free grain but because of the manner in which they are grown, harvested, transported, and processed they are highly likely to be contaminated with wheat and/or barley.
General Mills is not the first manufacturer to utilize mechanical and/or optical sorting processes to achieve what they claim yields a gluten-free oat product. Oats that have undergone this type of processing already appear to be in use in the gluten-free food supply. Yesterday I communicated via email with Grain Millers, Inc. While I am not able to share this correspondence directly, the company did provide me with a statement that reads in part:
Grain Millers is one of the world’s largest millers of oats, operating four mills in three locations. As a leader in the growth of organic agriculture, we naturally became involved in the production of gluten-free oat ingredients as more and more of our customers began asking us to utilize our expertise to produce gluten-free oat ingredients for use in their products. We studied the challenges for many years and when government standards were finally implemented, we confidently moved forward with our gluten-free program in 2012. The milled oat products we manufacture today as gluten-free are third-party certified by NSF and conform both to the US FDA standard and to the proposed requirements of Health Canada. The strength of our program, processing techniques, and testing rigor give our customers the confidence they need to make significant investments in their brands and products.
It is not always easy to confirm with companies whether the oats used in a product labeled gluten-free are:
1. Oats that have followed a purity protocol from farm to processing plant to prevent cross contact with wheat and barley
2. Oats that have been extensively cleaned at the back end of production (i.e., once arriving at the mill) to remove wheat and barley through some type of sorting (e.g., mechanical, optical)
3. Oats that are considered regular oats meaning they have not been subject to either a purity protocol or extensive sorting/cleaning
From the standpoint of the FDA labeling rule, none of the above really matters. What matters is that single and multi-ingredient oat products labeled gluten-free contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. It doesn’t matter to the Agency how this level is achieved.
For gluten-free consumers, it can be a very confusing situation. For years, they have been advised to eat only those oats and oat products that contain gluten-free/certified gluten-free oats. Gluten-free/certified gluten-free oats have typically been defined as those oats that follow a purity protocol to prevent/limit cross contact with wheat and barley from start to finish versus oats that are cleaned once they arrive at the mill.
For those of us who have been keenly studying oats and their use in gluten-free diets it is also very confusing. It is not always easy to get information from manufacturers and suppliers of oats. Some of us have suspected that not all oats in the gluten-free marketplace are “pure” oats. However, this has been difficult to confirm.
The larger issue for many of us in the gluten-free community is whether oats extensively cleaned at the mill are clean enough. Only very thorough testing can provide the answer. Both General Mills and Grain Millers claim they are testing thoroughly. Neither company is able to release testing data.
When gluten-free Cheerios are available commercially, Gluten Free Watchdog will be sending multiple lots to the lab for testing. The entire box of product will be ground and multiple extractions tested. This should provide consumers with a good picture of the gluten level in this product. Grain Millers is an oat ingredient supplier. We have asked if samples can be sent to us for testing.
UPDATE/CORRECTION: The parent company of Country Choice Oats is Grain Millers. Country Choice is now labeling some product gluten-free. We are currently testing Country Choice Gluten Free Organic Oats.
Addendum: After the link to this blog was sent to subscribers to Gluten Free Watchdog, I received the following question: Do you believe these products to be gluten-free? My answer: In my opinion, General Mills is not going to label a product gluten-free if they do not have full confidence that it is gluten-free. Grain Millers is not going to represent an oat ingredient as gluten-free to a gluten-free manufacturer if it isn’t. Doing so would not be good for business. Regardless, cleaning oats at the back end of production is a new concept for many people in the gluten-free community. Many people have a healthy dose of skepticism. This is why it is so important for Gluten Free Watchdog to test products.
At Gluten Free Watchdog it is our job to be skeptical, to question, and to test. Because we do not accept any sponsorship money from manufacturers we are a true independent voice and source of testing data for the gluten-free consumer.
This comment is published along with a repost of the article, “Manufacturer Use of Regular Oats in Gluten-Free Foods: Statement from Gluten Free Watchdog” originally published earlier this week. Please read both posts in order to put this “comment” on Cheerios into proper context.
A couple weeks ago, I was forwarded a General Mills sales release from their convenience and foodservice division stating that five varieties of Cheerios are “going gluten-free.” The varieties are Original, Honey Nut, Multigrain, Apple Cinnamon, and Frosted.
The sales release includes a graphic that states:
· “Cheerios are Made of Oats: Still the same source*
· Oats are Naturally Gluten-Free: Always have been
· But often had traces of wheat, barley and rye: Thus, Multigrain Cheerios will change formula
· Cheerios Added a Process to Sort Out the Stray Grains*: Invested in a new facility
· Now, Cheerios are Gluten-Free without changing a thing!: No UPC change”
Conversation with General Mills
I’ve had two conversations with General Mills, including one with a VP of Research and Development. She confirmed that gluten-free Cheerios are made using “high-quality” regular oats. General Mills claims that wheat and barley grain are removed from their oat supply by a proprietary mechanical process developed by engineers at General Mills (General Mills has reported elsewhere that they are using a mechanical filter). She went on to say that General Mills did not take the decision to produce gluten-free Cheerios lightly and that the process to develop this cereal has taken four years.
When asked why General Mills did not use oats specially produced to be gluten-free she responded that neither a gluten-free purity protocol for oats nor certified gluten-free oats is sufficient for their purposes. General Mills stated that they would not feel comfortable labeling Cheerios gluten-free if they used oats that were specially produced to be gluten-free or certified gluten-free. She also said that using an optical sorter along with a purity protocol for oats is not good enough, claiming that the process used by General Mills is better. When asked to provide more detail on the mechanical process used to remove wheat and barley from oats the response was that it was proprietary. After investing a lot of money General Mills is not going to give away their process for free.
The VP of R&D told me that she and General Mills are very confident that they are protecting the most vulnerable group of people (i.e., those individuals with celiac disease) on a gluten-free diet with their process. General Mills claims to be testing product extensively—both ingredients when they arrive at their facility and finished product. They would not divulge how much testing they are doing or what test they are using other than that it is an ELISA. When asked to what part per million level of gluten they are testing General Mills responded that the Cheerios test below 20 parts per million of gluten. I was also told that General Mills is an FDA partner and that they regularly share results of their testing protocol with the Agency. In addition, I was told that General Mills has shared their proprietary mechanical process with Health Canada.
General Mills provided me with the following statement, “General Mills products labeled as “gluten free” do not contain wheat, rye, barley or crossbred hybrid of these grains. They also do not contain ingredients that are derived from these grains. Gluten-free labeled products undergo extensive evaluation. Production locations also ensure that no cross-contact can occur during manufacturing and/or packaging. Finally, gluten-free products are routinely analyzed to ensure ongoing compliance with the FDA’s gluten free standard. All General Mills products labeled as “gluten free” meet this standard.”
The process developed by General Mills MAY work brilliantly. However, it is very difficult to evaluate the proprietary mechanical filter/process developed by General Mills without more information. It should be noted that grains, including oats, routinely undergo mechanical sorting but this process has never been sufficient to ensure a pure oat supply. While it is understandable that General Mills does not want to disclose details about their process they could provide more general information. General Mills should also be more transparent about their testing protocol including how often they are testing and the methodology they are using. There is nothing proprietary about a testing protocol. While it is the case that the gluten-free market is burgeoning and manufacturers want to take advantage of everyone eating gluten-free, including those who have no medical reason for doing so, General Mills and ALL manufacturers must keep in mind why we have gluten-free products in the first place. A gluten-free diet is the ONLY treatment for people with gluten-related disorders, including celiac disease. Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease and individuals with this disease deserve to know how manufacturers, who are capitalizing on the diet they REQUIRE in order to stay alive, are producing gluten-free food.
It is the recommendation of Gluten Free Watchdog that individuals with a medical need to follow a gluten-free diet purchase food from manufacturers who are transparent in the process used to ensure a truly gluten-free product, including their testing protocol. Manufacturers should not expect the blind trust of gluten-free consumers but should provide facts so that individuals can make informed decisions.
Other General Mills Products
My conversation with General Mills raised questions in my mind about their Chex “gluten-free” oatmeal. For a few reasons, I was under the impression that General Mills was sourcing their oats for Chex from a supplier of specially produced gluten-free oats (which would be a good thing). When asked whether this was indeed the case the reply from the VP was that she was not as familiar with Chex oatmeal but the difference in the source of oats could be due to Chex oatmeal using whole grain oats and Cheerios using oat flour. IF Chex oatmeal is made from specially produced gluten-free oats it is curious why these oats are good enough for Chex oatmeal but not Cheerios.
Manufacturer Use of Regular Oats in Gluten-Free Foods: Statement from Gluten Free Watchdog (Originally published Feb 11, 2015)
Ten years ago individuals with celiac disease were advised against eating oats. This was not because oats inherently contain gluten but because oats available commercially were highly likely to be contaminated with wheat or barley. Ten years ago we did not have oats that were specially produced and processed to be gluten-free. Today, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Cream Hill Estates, Avena Foods, and Gluten-Free Harvest specially produced and processed gluten-free oats and oat ingredients (e.g., rolled oats, steel cut oats, oat flakes, oat flour, oat bran, and oat groats) are available to gluten-free manufacturers and consumers.
Production and Processing
It is important to remember that there are two major activities required to bring gluten-free oats from field to table. The first is production, which takes place at the farm and involves seed sourcing and planting, growing, harvesting, transport and storage. The second is processing, which takes place at the mill and involves cleaning, mechanical sorting, dehulling, stabilizing against rancidity, and transforming into flakes, flour, steel-cut, whole groats, and bran for human consumption. Contamination can occur anywhere along this route. Here, for simplicity, Gluten Free Watchdog will use the term “produce” to refer to both production and processing.
Purity protocol for gluten-free oats
Cream Hill Estates was the first (followed soon after by Avena Foods and Gluten-Free Harvest) to set tough standards for oats specially produced to be gluten-free. The specific purity protocol developed by Cream Hill Estates included the following:
- Using pure seed
- Growing the oats on fields that had not grown wheat, rye or barley in the crop rotation for at least 3 years
- Using dedicated and/or thoroughly cleaned equipment for seeding, harvesting, transport, and storage
- Processing the oats in a dedicated gluten-free facility
- Extensive testing of oats for gluten contamination both at the farm and the processor before and after processing
This protocol was developed out of necessity. These steps were needed to ensure a truly gluten-free oat supply for individuals with celiac disease.
Presently, not all gluten-free manufacturers are sourcing their oats from suppliers of specially produced gluten-free oats who use ALL aspects of a purity protocol similar to the one above. Some manufacturers and suppliers may be sourcing “regular” oats from farms that have wheat or barley contamination in their fields or equipment. At least one manufacturer is using a proprietary mechanical process to remove wheat and barley from regular oats*. In addition, some suppliers MAY be using optical sorters in addition to conventional cleaning equipment to remove wheat and barley. However, it is not clear how well these sorting processes work on “regular” oats from the standpoint of ensuring a consistently reliable source of gluten-free oats. For oat producers and processors that adhere to an established purity protocol, optical sorting (and other proprietary sorting processes) could be another important step in ensuring a “safe” source of oats for the celiac disease community.
*General Mills is using a proprietary mechanical process that they claim removes wheat and barley from regular oats. These oats will be used in the gluten-free varieties of Cheerios which will be available nationally by the fall of 2015. A separate post on Cheerios is forthcoming.
What is “optical sorting?”
The most sophisticated optical sorters allow grains to be sorted (and rejected) on the basis of color, size, and shape. According to a brochure on Sortex optical sorters from Buhler, “For all different varieties of oats, whether rolled, hulled, kilned, malted or flaked, the precision sorting of the SORTEX range produces safe, clean products whilst maximising yields. The SORTEX range can remove cross-contamination, foreign materials, discolouration and subtle spot defects.”
Gluten contamination in regular oats
We know from a study published in 2004 that “regular” oats available in the US market cannot be considered gluten-free. Based on testing four different lots of three brands of oats, it is clear that oat contamination varies tremendously between brands and between lots of the same brand. There also may be a great deal of variation within the same lot, especially if the lots are large. This is why testing (and a lot of testing of representative samples) is necessary.
|Brand||Mean ppm gluten|
|McCann’s Steel Cut Irish Oats (4 different lot numbers tested in duplicate)||< 3, 12, 23, 725|
|Country Choice Organic Oats (4 different lot numbers tested in duplicate)||< 3, 120, 131, 210|
|Quaker Old Fashioned Oats (4 different lot numbers tested in duplicate)||338, 364, 971, 1807|
Source: Tricia Thompson. Gluten Contamination of Commercial Oat Products in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine. 2004;351:2021-2022
Testing of gluten-free or certified gluten-free oats and oat-containing products through Gluten Free Watchdog
Gluten Free Watchdog has tested a number of gluten-free and certified gluten-free oats and oat-containing foods. To date three products containing oats have tested at or above 20 parts per million of gluten. After two of these manufacturers changed oat suppliers the products tested below 20 parts per million of gluten at the time of retesting. The third product has not yet been retested.
Note: It is the policy of Gluten Free Watchdog to retest products testing at or above 20 parts per million of gluten approximately one year after the original test date.
A tale of two countries and gluten-free oats
Gluten-free claims on oats in the US
In the United States, oats and oat-based ingredients (e.g., oat flour, etc) used in labeled gluten-free foods do NOT have to be specially produced “gluten-free oats.” In addition, the FDA has stated that the term “gluten-free” may be considered intervening material in an ingredients list because it is not part of the common or usual name for any ingredient (and therefore may be subject to misbranding regulations). As a consequence it is very difficult for consumers in the US to know whether an oat ingredient is specially produced to be gluten-free.
Gluten-free claims on oats in Canada
Health Canada released a Notice of Intent to issue a Marketing Authorization (MA) to allow gluten-free claims for specially produced oats that do NOT contain more than 20 parts per million of gluten from wheat, rye, barley, or their hybridized strains, and for foods containing these “gluten-free oats” as ingredients when sold in Canada.
Specially produced oats are defined by Health Canada as, “Oats that are grown, transported, stored, prepared and/or processed in a manner that avoids cross-contamination by wheat, barley, rye, or their hybridized strains, or oats that are processed in a way that effectively removes cross-contamination by wheat, barley, rye, or their hybridized strains.”
For a food containing oats to be labeled gluten-free in Canada:
1. The food contains no oats other than specially produced “gluten-free oats.”
2. The “gluten-free oats” are clearly identified as such in all cases where ‘oats’ are referenced, including in the list of ingredients.
The consultation period for this Marketing Authorization for labeling “gluten-free oats” in Canada recently ended. Gluten Free Watchdog will let you know when a decision has been made.
Gluten-Free Watchdog’s plea to manufacturers
We ask manufacturers to please use only specially produced gluten-free oats (as defined by Health Canada) in their labeled gluten-free products. It is the opinion of Gluten Free Watchdog that a truly gluten-free source of oats begins with the use of pure seed and follows an established purity protocol. At Gluten Free Watchdog we understand that there is promising technology with optical sorters and other proprietary mechanical sorting processes that allow oats to be processed to remove barley and wheat grain. More information is needed before we can assess whether these sorters will allow “regular” oats to be processed enough to effectively and consistently remove wheat and barley. As always, Gluten Free Watchdog will continue to monitor the issues concerning the use and labeling of gluten-free oats.
Recommendations for consumers
As a general rule, oats and oat products that are certified gluten-free by a third party certification organization are a good choice for consumers. There are some manufacturers who choose not to certify their products through a third party organization but nonetheless follow a strict purity protocol or source their oats from a supplier of certified gluten-free oats.
At Gluten Free Watchdog we understand that this information may be confusing to consumers. It is hoped that the recommendations below will help you choose your oat products wisely.
It is the recommendation of Gluten Free Watchdog that individuals with celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders choose oat products from manufacturers:
· Who source their oats from a supplier whose growers follow a purity protocol
· Test their product extensively
o Oat ingredients (e.g., rolled oats, oat flour) should be tested by the supplier and the manufacturer
§ When it comes to oats there is no such thing as too much testing
§ Suppliers may provide certificates of analysis for oats testing less than 5 ppm gluten, less then 10 ppm gluten, and less than 20 ppm gluten
· It is the opinion of Gluten Free Watchdog that the lowest level of gluten contamination should always be requested by manufacturers
· Ask manufacturers to what level their oats are tested and choose your products accordingly based on your own comfort level
· Are willing to answer consumer questions
o Manufacturers who are proud of the steps they take to ensure a consistently gluten-free product will be forthcoming with information
§ At Gluten Free Watchdog we are not proponents of manufacturers withholding information from consumers because it is “proprietary”
§ Consumers with celiac disease—a serious autoimmune disease—should be provided with the information they need to make educated decisions
§ If you have any difficulties with a manufacturer please contact Gluten Free Watchdog
A huge THANK YOU to Amy Jones, MS, RD for her critical review of this article including multiple “read throughs” to help tweak the wording!!
Another huge THANK YOU to those in the oat processing industry who were consulted for input. This article could not have been written without their help.
© Copyright February 2015 by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD for Gluten Free Watchdog. All Rights Reserved.