Some people in the gluten-free community continue to question if Cheerios are really gluten-free. For many years, I wasn’t brave enough to express how I felt about this topic, but today, I want to unpack the controversy and help you make an educated decision about Cheerios based on fact, not fear. All opinions are my own. Please see my disclosures.
If you’ve been in the gluten-free community for a while, chances are you’ve been told not to trust gluten-free Cheerios. Worse, you may have been shamed by the Internet police for admitting that you eat the popular breakfast cereal.
Some influencers, “experts,” dieticians, and vocal critics continue to tell the gluten-free community not to eat Cheerios.
But have you ever wondered why the gluten-free community continues to advise their brethren to avoid the beloved cereal brand?
In this article, I unpack the controversy behind gluten-free Cheerios to help you understand why some people say you should steer clear of Cheerios while others say it’s time to stop the madness.
Wherever you stand on Cheerios, it’s important to respect that everyone is holding in a different place when it comes to what they will and won’t eat.
My goal is to help you understand if the criticism lobbed at Cheerios is justified and then decide for yourself where you stand on the issue.
Why Are Gluten-Free Cheerios Controversial?
Ever since General Mills announced that its O-shaped breakfast cereal would be gluten-free in July 2015, the gluten-free community has been in an uproar.
It started when The Gluten-Free Watchdog recommended that the community avoid Cheerios, citing that General Mills uses what she says are unsatisfactory testing methods for gluten.
Specifically, the Watchdog says General Mills takes the “mean” test results from 12-18 boxes of Cheerios taken from different lots and made in a 24-hour period. Some packages may contain detectable levels of gluten; others don’t.
Instead of discarding the batches with detectable levels of gluten, she says General Mills averages the test results from all 12-18 boxes to determine if the mean amount of gluten meets the FDA’s threshold of less than 20 ppm of gluten. If it does, all batches will then be labeled “gluten-free.”
She says such testing is inconsistent and could potentially mean some boxes of Cheerios would contain higher concentrations of gluten than others.
In 2021, the Gluten-Free Watchdog doubled down on her distaste for Cheerios, saying she “cannot in good conscience recommend gluten-free Cheerios.”
The Big Cheerios Recall
In October 2015, just a few months after its gluten-free debut, General Mills recalled nearly two million boxes of its Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios, citing that some boxes had been mistakenly contaminated with wheat at its California facility.
The gluten-free community doesn’t forgive and forget easily, and many people still cite the 2015 recall as one of the reasons they won’t eat Cheerios. Cheerios has not had any gluten-related recalls since.
Unfounded Fear of Commodity Oats
Oats have always been a controversial ingredient in gluten-free land. That’s because while oats are naturally gluten-free, they are cross-contaminated with wheat during harvesting and manufacturing.
While “commodity” oats are grown in shared fields with wheat, they’re optically or mechanically sorted from other grains and then washed to remove any gluten dust.
Commodity oats are used by large companies that require large quantities of oats to manufacture their products, such as General Mills, Quaker, Bob’s Red Mill, and Oreo. Commodity oats are celiac-safe.
“Purity” oats are grown on dedicated oat fields free from wheat contamination. They are more expensive and harder to find in large quantities, and believe it or not, despite a farmer’s best efforts, even purity oats can contain gluten due to cross-contamination, as evidenced by the recent GF Harvest debacle.
Erica Dermer, the founder of Celiac and the Beast, says, “I urge everyone to become educated about oats, what [kinds of] oats are used in products, and to be aware of, but not scared of, ingredients.”
I also encourage you to read more about why oats are controversial and become an educated gluten-free consumer.
Some hypervigilant members of the gluten-free community perpetuate the myth that “commodity” oats aren’t safe for celiacs. It’s just not true.
Be Skeptical of Misinformation on Social Media
One influencer/ dietician posted a confusing message about the safety of Cheerios and oats in general.
In the video, she says Cheerios aren’t “celiac safe” because, “For any food item that has oats in it, in order for it to be celiac-safe … an oat product either needs to (1) be certified gluten-free or (2) state gluten-free oats in the ingredients.”
BTW, a product doesn’t have to say “gluten-free oats” on the ingredient label. In fact, ingredient labels rarely contain adjectives that describe an ingredient. A celiac-safe product only needs to be labeled “gluten-free” to be safe for the gluten-free community to consume. A gluten-free certification is preferred but not mandatory.
Her followers asked her about Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free oats, which contain commodity oats and are not certified gluten-free. She said they are an “exception.”
She also says to ignore the Celiac Disease Foundation’s endorsement of Cheerios (more on that later). Wow, talk about confusion central!
One follower left this comment on the influencer’s post, “I’d do your own research or talk to your own doctor over a lady on the Internet. Our celiac kids have enough restrictions without second-guessing a company’s very stringent testing and the American Celiac Foundation endorsement.”
Not every celiac can tolerate oats, and they experience a phenomenon known as cross-reactivity. If this is you, you should not eat Cheerios.
Remember, if you’re avoiding Cheerios due to cross-reactivity, you should not conflate the two when adding your two cents on this important topic.
Dermer says, “There’s recent research that about eight percent of those with celiac disease can’t tolerate oats. Unless you’re part of that eight percent, oats can be a great part of a gluten-free diet.”
After the Gluten-Free Watchdog admonished Cheerios and the big recall, General Mills pulled its gluten-free claim in Canada in 2017, stating the following:
“Each serving of Cheerios products in Canada are gluten-free, as defined by the current regulatory standard of containing less than 20 ppm of gluten.
“General Mills Canada has made the decision to voluntarily remove the gluten-free label from our Cheerios products in Canada until Health Canada and The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) publish a consistent testing protocol for products containing oats.
“At this time, the product is not changing, just the label on the box. We look forward to labeling the Cheerios products in Canada as gluten-free once consensus is reached on a consistent testing protocol for products containing oats.”
In other words, Cheerios are gluten-free in Canada (same as in the U.S.), but General Mills refuses to label them as such until the Canadian government agencies publish consistent testing protocols for products containing oats. So far, this hasn’t happened.
In the US, there are scientifically-backed guidelines for the use of commodity oats from the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease. These guidelines are “enthusiastically endorsed” by the Celiac Disease Foundation and backed by a dozen research studies.
When you see someone from Canada say in a comment or chatroom, “But Cheerios aren’t gluten-free in Canada,” you now know why. Canada doesn’t have guidelines for commodity oats; the U.S. does.
IMPORTANT!! Can You Eat Gluten-Free Cheerios?
Given the controversies, you may wonder if it’s safe to eat Cheerios when following a strict gluten-free diet.
Are Cheerios really gluten-free?
And can you trust General Mills to offer a safe, gluten-free product?
I want to help you feel more comfortable and confident eating Cheerios based on the facts on the ground, not rampant fear-mongering in anxiety-inducing Facebook groups.
Below I share several reasons why you might want to go rogue, ignore the haters, and give Cheerios a second look:
Cheerios Are Labeled Gluten-Free
General Mills could not label a product “gluten-free” if it contained more gluten than the 20 ppm gluten threshold. Period.
It’s been seven years since the Gluten-Free Watchdog issued her doom-and-gloom report on Cheerios, and in those seven years, I’m unaware of any lawsuits against Cheerios.
Scott Adams, the founder of Celiac.com, wrote on September 2016, “So far, nobody can produce a single box that tests over 20 ppm. Until that happens, I don’t see an issue with celiacs eating them.”
He adds, “The biggest issue, from my perspective, is that there is a general anti-big corporate attitude that seems to make some people not trust them. In reality, the fact that they are bigger, at least to me, means that when they say “gluten-free,” you can believe it over a smaller company (my perspective is based on 7 years as a corporate paralegal and the understanding of what it would mean in terms of total liability if General Mills got this wrong).”
Remember, General Mills has deep pockets. Surely someone has been trying to find levels of gluten inside Cheerios beyond the 20 ppm threshold. It would make for a juicy lawsuit and Dateline special, wouldn’t it?
And if a jury were to find General Mills at fault, I would eat all my words and make sure you knew that Cheerios weren’t celiac-safe.
Cheerios is Vocal About Its Safety Efforts
General Mills has been very vocal about its efforts to make Cheerios safe for the gluten-free community, saying on its website:
“We process and test our oats using methods recommended by the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease and the Celiac Disease Foundation. For more information about celiacs and oat consumption, visit this page at Celiac.org.
“Because of the potential for gluten-containing grains like wheat, barley, and rye to co-mingle with our oats, we use a state-of-the-art mechanical and optical sorting process to remove those gluten-containing grains from our oats.
“Every batch of oats and finished product is sampled and scrutinized by a team of technicians to ensure the health and safety of our consumers that have gluten intolerances or allergies.
“Our oats are then skillfully milled into oat flour that is verified to be gluten-free through continuous sampling and empirical testing. We then test multiple composited samples of finished products to ensure that every production lot meets the FDA’s standard for gluten-free foods.”
Remember, General Mills says it’s following scientifically-backed guidelines regarding the use of commodity oats published by the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease. Again, these guidelines are “enthusiastically endorsed” by the Celiac Disease Foundation.
The Celiac Disease Foundation Endorses Cheerios
General Mills displays that it’s a “Proud sponsor of the Celiac Disease Foundation” on every box of Cheerios.
This means the Celiac Disease Foundation accepts money from Cheerios, which can be interpreted as an endorsement from the esteemed organization.
If the Celiac Disease Foundation found that Cheerios weren’t safe for the gluten-free community, it would be highly unethical for the organization to accept money from General Mills.
The Celiac Disease Foundation’s Medical Advisory Board says it has “no evidence that General Mills gluten-free cereals are not safe for celiac consumption.”
The Celiac Disease Foundation has not responded to my email asking for a comment.
I’ve independently tested Cheerios for hidden gluten several times with my Nima Sensor, a portable gluten-detecting device, and Nima always smiles. A smiley face means Nima didn’t find any gluten.
That said, some people have found gluten in Cheerios via Nima, including this 8th grader from Atlanta.
Remember, however, that a “Gluten Found” message may still mean a product contains less than 20 ppm of gluten, which is how much gluten a product can contain to be labeled “gluten-free” in the U.S.
Nima has been criticized for being too accurate, and the company admits that Nima displays a “Gluten Found” message 35 percent of the time when it finds even five ppm of gluten.
While Nima is a great tool for testing your food for hidden gluten, it’s not 100% reliable or foolproof, which is something I have extensively written about in my article, What You Need to Know About Nima Sensor Before You Buy – Perspective from a Celiac & Nutrition Professional.
Ironically, The Gluten-Free Watchdog recommends against using the Nima Sensor to test individual boxes of Cheerios since Nima only tests a small sample size of the cereal.
While it’s true Nima cannot test an entire box for hidden gluten (no testing method can), it can give you a pretty good indication of whether the food you’re about to eat contains gluten.
The Watchdog fails to mention that her testing methods aren’t foolproof either. While she is testing a larger sample of a single box of Cheerios, she’s not testing the actual box of Cheerios you’re about to eat.
I think the community needs to recognize the pros and cons of third-party testing data and how it compares to a simple testing device that can be used to test the actual food placed before you.
Not All Cheerios are Gluten-Free
Not all varieties of Cheerios are labeled gluten-free. Always check the cereal box for the latest information.
The current flavors General Mills says are gluten-free include:
- Apple Cinnamon Cheerios
- Banana Nut Cheerios (limited edition)
- Blueberry Cheerios
- Chocolate Cheerios
- Chocolate Strawberry Cheerios (limited edition)
- Cinnamon Cheerios
- Honey Nut Cheerios
- Frosted Cheerios
- Fruity Cheerios
- Maple Cheerios
- Multi-Grain Cheerios
- Peach Cheerios (limited edition)
- Pumpkin Spice Cheerios (limited edition)
- Toasted Coconut Cheerios
- Very Berry Cheerios
As a reminder, Cheerios in Canada are not labeled gluten-free. See “Oh, Canada” section above for an explanation.
My Two Cents on Cheerios
Here’s what I think:
Think For Yourself: I believe everyone in the gluten-free community should decide for themselves if they want to eat Cheerios, and regardless of their choices, they shouldn’t be judged or admonished for their decision.
Beware of Hypervigilance and Over-Restriction: I believe that anti-Cheerios rhetoric leads to hypervigilance and unnecessary restrictions for the already restricted gluten-free community.
I highly recommend you read Can You Be Too Gluten-Free? How to Balance Dietary Vigilance Without Losing Your Mind to ensure you follow a safe gluten-free diet without over-restricting yourself.
Trust the Science: In the U.S., there are specific guidelines for brands that want to use commodity oats. If you’re still worried about eating commodity gluten-free oats, you’re not trusting the science.
Support Brands Going Gluten-Free: I believe the gluten-free community must decide whether it loves or hates it when big businesses enter the gluten-free fray.
While General Mills has become the poster child for distrust of big corporations within the gluten-free community, the truth is that most of the gluten-free community desperately wants big brands to make gluten-free versions of beloved products.
When Nabisco came out with gluten-free Oreo cookies, the gluten-free community went crazy. They finally felt like their “diet” was important to a big corporation.
Even the popular influencer, Phil Hates Gluten, is constantly asking big brands “to make it gluten-free,” begging brands like Ritz, Pop-Tarts, Little Debbie, and Goldfish, to name a few, to make gluten-free versions of popular gluten-free junk foods.
However, given how the gluten-free community has treated Cheerios, other big brands may be nervous to dip their toes into what they may perceive as shark-infested gluten-free waters.
Be Kind: By sharing my two cents on Cheerios, I recognize that I open myself to criticism. My default character trait is to speak up and out when I see something that isn’t right. If I’m proven wrong, I will eat my words, correct this information, and make sure everyone knows what they need to do to be safe.
In the meantime, I will continue to speak out against hypervigilance, fear-mongering, and general distrust for big brands that are getting gluten-free right.
The Bottom Line
While my opinion on Cheerios may be unpopular, it’s time someone told the full story on the gluten-free Cheerios debacle.
And maybe by sharing a different perspective than one would see in a gluten-free Facebook group, it will help others realize that they might be able to eat a bowl of Cheerios once again.
Please leave a comment to share your two cents on Cheerios. I’d love to hear where you stand and if this article has changed your mind in any way.
Please do not comment, “I cannot tolerate oats, so I would never eat Cheerios.” Right, some of you can’t tolerate oats. We get it and wouldn’t want you to eat something that hurts you.
However, this isn’t the place for comments like that. You might instead want to read my article, Understanding Gluten Cross-Reactivity and Gluten Cross-Reactive Foods, and leave a comment there.
You might enjoy these articles, too:
- List of Gluten-Free Cereals – Tested for Hidden Gluten
- The Gluten-Free Watchdog Takes Extreme Stance Against Gluten-Free Oats
- What You Need to Know About Nima Sensor Before You Buy – Perspective from a Celiac & Nutrition Professional
- Are Oats Gluten-Free? Unpacking Confusing and Contradictory Information
- What You Need to Know About the Food Labeling Modernization Act When You’re Gluten-Free
- Can You Be Too Gluten-Free? How to Balance Dietary Vigilance Without Losing Your Mind
- Is the FDA’s 20 ppm Gluten Threshold Enough?
- What Gluten-Free Labeling Laws and Certifications Really Mean