Thursday, February 12, 2015

Could Cheerios Make Things Harder?

Yesterday I heard big news that has been spreading like wildfire ever since it was announced. Cheerios is changing their formula so that it is gluten-free. My immediate assumption was that they were going to use certified gluten-free oats like every other gluten-free product that contains oats. I'm waiting on confirmation, but at this point, I'm assuming it's unfortunate that they aren't using certified gluten-free oats for various reasons.

The great thing about Cheerios was that they didn't need to change their actual ingredients for their original Cheerios to be gluten-free. I often wondered why they didn't make a gluten-free version using certified gluten-free oats, charge a slight up-charge because those oats would be more expensive, and then it'd be similar to what Kelloggs did with Rice-Krispies. They have a regular version, and they have a gluten-free version.

General Mills chose to take a different approach and simply change all of them to gluten-free. According to the General Mills blog:
We’ve developed a way – years in the making – to sort out the small amount of wheat, rye and barley in our supply of whole oats that are inadvertently introduced at the farms where the oats were grown, or during transportation of the whole oats to the mill.
Due to everything I've ever read in the past, their procedure kind of scares me. I would assume a company as large as General Mills would be absolutely sure, but when I read an article on Gluten Free Watchdog, I knew I was right to worry. According to Tricia Thompson (founder of Gluten Free Watchdog),
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.  
She ends the article on her site with the following 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. 
There are a lot of people complaining that an estimated 20% of those with celiac disease still can't consume oats. Other complain there are ingredients in Cheerios that aren't health. The list of complaints goes on and on, but I prefer to focus on the main issue at hand. Will they or will they not be gluten-free. Even Tricia Thompson isn't able to say yes or no for certain, but I love her plea to manufacturers. It seems so much simpler to just use a safe product rather than hoping you can "decontaminate" an unsafe product.

I definitely have other questions regarding this topic. First, are there even enough certified gluten-free oats for General Mills and all of the other manufacturers that already use them. Is it possible that General Mills use of them could cause a shortage which could put other companies out of business? If there aren't enough, could General Mills have their own fields to grow certified gluten free oats for their products?

And then I look at worst case scenario... say they usually test under 20ppm to meet FDA guidelines, but they sometimes test slightly over or just under and many individuals get sick? I assume the FDA would shut them down, or they would pull the gluten-free claim voluntarily. I guess my biggest worry is having one more thing I have to explain away to people. If it's labeled gluten-free, then it should be safe for those with celiac disease to consume, and it's very frustrating to explain to people why I have to second guess claims.

This could all be worry over nothing, but I personally think it's worth it to do additional investigation to be sure. If we all blindly follow the claims of manufacturers (big and small), then aren't we opening ourselves up to harming ourselves by ingesting gluten? I'm very interested to see how things work out. Kudos to General Mills if their process is truly safe, but shame on them if they haven't done enough research.

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