Hello peeps! I’m freshly back from Minneapolis where General Mills is cooking up some gluten-free business. If you took part in the lively Facebook thread, you know that GM is changing the way Cheerios are made and as of this fall, 5 varieties of Cheerios will be gluten-free: Original, Honey Nut (woot!), Multigrain, Apple Cinnamon and Frosted.
Naturally, those of us who have celiac disease and other intolerances, allergies, and darn good reasons to stay away from gluten, are wondering two things: Is it safe? How does it taste?
Well, I can answer one of those questions.
First of all, let me tell you how involved in General Mills business I am, which is not at all. GM is not paying me, I’m writing this post 100% for you guys (and me)—those of us who are excited by new products going gluten-free, but also worried about how safe it will be, and if it will be snatched away from us the second we get used to enjoying Honey Nut handfuls once again. General Mills DID fly me to Minneapolis, put me up in a hotel, and provide me with gluten-free meals during the summit with other leaders in the gluten-free and celiac worlds. I had to pay for this adorable souvenir all on my own –
For two days we toured the offices, and most interestingly, the mill, and talked to all of the people who were behind the gluten-free initiative that now includes Cheerios. We did some brainstorming, some whining, and a lot of explaining to the GM staff about challenges we face as celiacs and why we may be worried about Cheerios being a safe option. Also, there were a lot of thank yous going around for not only Cheerios but also the Chex situation and future projects GM is considering. You should know that a room full of people who advocate for celiacs were not going to be satisfied until we truly felt we had enough information to return to our communities and encourage everyone to pour themselves a bowl. There were some tough questions, some “are you just in it for the trend/money?” and a lot of “what about when it goes into the package? into the shipping containers?” and so on.
I have to say I walked away not only satisfied, but incredibly excited about what General Mills may have in store for us in the future. (I know the Gluten Dude will also be writing on this topic, so head over there for a different take, or maybe he’ll have the same. Either way, check him out!)
The best way for me to explain what’s going to happen when Cheerios rolls out these 5 varieties this fall is to explain oat processing. I’m not an expert, so I’ll talk in “I went to a state school” language. Cheerios/General Mills have always sought high quality oats for their products, and they have certain standards they require. In sourcing the oats, GM also needs a huge quantity given the demand for Cheerios and other oat flour products in their cereal line. This explains why GM can’t purchase certified gluten-free oats for production—there are simply not enough. So they had to make their own gluten-free oats.
In layman terms, the deal with oats (that are not certified gluten-free) is this: Oat farmers often rotate crops for the best yields. Often times the crops that are rotating include wheat, rye and barley. Additionally, oat fields can live close enough to any other grain fields where the wind will sweep wheat right into that oat harvest. This is the reason why Cheerios, and a lot of oat products, are not gluten-free. Even though the amount of wheat, barley and/or rye that flies into that oat supply may seem to be negligible, it’s still too much for those of us who get sick from gluten. Here’s a visual of how many random grains invade a typical oat supply –
The jar contains oats, and the two baggies contain wheat and barley that were removed from that jar. The only way you could get to below 20ppm of gluten in this scenario is if you had one of those grains, not the huge chunk that you see here.
While Cheerios ingredients have never been “gluten-containing” oat flour is always (again, unless certified GF) contaminated on some level, with gluten-containing grains. The challenge for General Mills was to remove the other grains and process clean oat flour. Five years, and probably a zillion dollars later (GM would not let us know how much they spent but since an entirely new building was involved, let’s just assume it was a lot), GM created a thorough process within their designated mill to clean the oats through mechanical means, not chemical. There are three different filters, vacuums, shakings and sortings going on that mill and they’re all designed to sort the gluten grains out of the oat supply. That was step one. And it’s a big one. The most important testing happens at that point, as that’s when they would know if something went awry. It took 5 years of testing, engineering, and a lot of passion to get to the point where this process works better than even what the FDA would consider safe.
Let’s talk about testing. This is also a huge deal, as we need to know there are no goof-ups along the processing line. The oats are tested as they enter the mill, they are tested again after they are cleaned, and they are tested again after the cereal is produced. While the scientific community has agreed that 20ppm of gluten is the safe number for celiacs, General Mills always aims for a much lower number. And thus far, they have succeeded. This probably has a lot to do with the initial process, and the dedicated, and covered, lines for their gluten-free products, as well as the rigorous cleaning and dedicated shipping containers and trucks.
Why gluten-free, and why now? As you may know General Mills has been producing gluten-free Chex for several years now. So this isn’t their first rodeo. But Cheerios is their most iconic product, and the King of the Cereal Aisle. So it’s a risk, even though the recipe isn’t changing, to mess with a good thing. This is where Phil comes in.
Phil has been working with General Mills for over 50 years. You can thank him for Honey Nut Cheerios, as he began bee keeping and was inspired to create a new flavor. So already, Phil is aces in my book. Five years ago Phil’s daughter-in-law was getting very sick from gluten. As he and his wife tried to prepare gluten-free safe foods for her, he learned that she (Joyce) could not eat Cheerios. This did not sit well with Phil. And thus his campaign to create a safe, delicious, product for Joyce began.
You’ll hear a lot more about Phil as this initiative continues. But the personal story, and Phil’s commitment to keeping his daughter-in-law safe, went a long way in convincing us this was a labor of love, as well as a smart move on the part of General Mills.
All right, so let’s address the other questions and concerns you’ve expressed.
What about GMOs?
Oats are not genetically modified, and the original Cheerios contain no GMOs. There are some ingredients in some of the other flavors that could contain GMOs, but the oat flour (the main component) never does.
Who is overseeing the testing?
Medallion Labs is the preeminent food testing facility and will be conducting the testing. And yes, it is owned by General Mills, but it is also used across the industry by many other food companies and is universally trusted.
What if I can’t eat oats?
Then you can’t eat Cheerios, gluten-free or not. And that is a huge bummer.
How expensive will it be?
General Mills knows that that spiking up the price of a box of Cheerios is not good business. And even though the research, facilities, and other expenses have increased on their end, they will continue to keep the price the same. Boo-ya.
What about the wheat starch on the ingredient list?
This was super interesting to me. The recipe for Cheerios does not include wheat starch. This was used to warn people who had issues with wheat, that there could be wheat in the oat flour mix. So the recipe will not change at all.
When can I buy them?
The gluten-free versions will start rolling out this fall. While the transition is happening, you have to look at the label. Look for the simply gluten-free label, otherwise you could be eating some old school Cheerios.
And in Canada?
We have an official quote from General Mills, as you guys may need to wait a little longer. Here goes: The oats in our Canadian Cheerios (original Cheerios in the yellow box, Honey Nut, Multi-Grain, and Apple Cinnamon) are identical to the U.S. products. Health Canada is in the final stages of reviewing new labeling regulations that would allow oats to be labelled “as gluten free oats” when properly handled. If the new regulation is approved, General Mills will update Canadian Cheerios packaging to include Gluten Free messaging.
How does it taste?
Well, the gluten-free Cheerios were not yet ready, so we were not lucky enough to give it a taste. However, since the recipe is not changing at all—it will just be using clean oats—it will taste exactly the same as the gluten’y version.
So there you have it. Any more questions, please do let me know. I just spent a heck of a lot of time with the GM people and I do feel confident that I’ll be chowing down come fall. And I do hope it comes in this size –