Cheerios Goes Gluten-Free

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General Mills retools America’s beloved cereal

In late July, you’ll find an exciting new product on supermarket shelves—gluten-free Cheerios. You’ll know it’s arrived when you see the “Simply Made Gluten Free” logo on the lower right of the box. At this point, only a gluten-free version will be sold, so there’ll be no confusion about picking up the right box.

Cheerios’ top five sellers are now gluten-free—the iconic Original (yellow box), Honey Nut, Frosted, Apple Cinnamon and Multigrain. The price hasn’t change and neither has the size of the box. The formulas also stay the same, except that sorghum and millet replace wheat and barley in Multigrain. (General Mills says the taste difference is indiscernible.) Original Cheerios is also GMO free.

So why did General Mills make the switch to gluten-free? We found out firsthand when food editor Beth Hillson attended General Mills’ Cheerios Summit in Minneapolis. During the two-day visit, General Mills’ production folks, engineers, marketing people and COO explained how they moved Cheerios to the gluten-free side of the cereal aisle.

It’s All About Oats

The major ingredient in Cheerios is oats, pure and simple. But the cross contamination of oats with wheat, rye and barley makes it off-limits to people who have celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Using certified gluten-free oats wasn’t an option for General Mills. The company uses about 400 million pounds of oat flour per year to produce Cheerios, way more than the amount of certified gluten-free oats available. So General Mills set out to find a way to separate out the errant wheat, rye and barley and purify the oats used to make Cheerios.

Turns out this wasn’t an easy job. General Mills spent more than five years perfecting the process, including building a new multimillion-dollar facility, Fridley Mills. This facility is the first step in separating the oats from stray kernels of wheat, rye and barley. Testing begins when the oat shipment arrives at the mill and when the oats are cleaned and sorted. Once that batch is passed, it’s sorted again and tested again. If passed, the oats move to the grinding area where they’re ground into flour. Multiple samples are taken and tested again. If approved, they’re loaded onto dedicated rail cars and sent to the cereal plants where they’re made into Cheerios. Then every hour, a box is pulled from the line where multiple samples are taken and tested again using the R5 ELISA test. The goal is to always test well below FDA’s threshold of less than 20 ppm. To further ensure this, samples are also tested by Medallion Labs, an independent laboratory that tests General Mills’ other gluten-free products.

Why Did General Mills Do This?

It’s good business. Since the company’s popular Chex cereal went gluten-free in 2008, the product line has seen a double-digit sales growth every year. But there’s also a personal story behind the Cheerios switch. Phil Zietlow, who’s worked at General Mills for 50 years and is the brains behind Honey Nut Cheerios, was inspired to create gluten-free Cheerios after his daughter-in-law was diagnosed with severe gluten intolerance. At first, it was a hobby project. Once he and other engineers were able to prove that the oats could be separated successfully, the company put all its efforts behind the project.

General Mills’ decision to make Cheerios gluten-free came after the FDA announced its gluten-free labeling standard of less than 20 ppm, says Jeff Harmening, COO of General Mills U.S. Retail. “We knew we could achieve that and more.”

There’s a lot at stake for General Mills. While many other products became gluten-free after tweaking a formula or reviewing and vetting the ingredients, Cheerios is by far the most ambitious project to date. The company invested millions of dollars not to alter a thing in the formula for Cheerios. The only change was adding the mechanical process for purifying the oats.

Gluten-containing Cheerios had wheat starch listed as an ingredient. Turns out, wheat starch was used in just one mill and then only occasionally. By putting wheat starch and “contains wheat” on the label, General Mills sent a warning to people with celiac disease that the original cereal wasn’t safe for their consumption.

Will You Eat Gluten-Free Cheerios?

The gluten-free community has been abuzz about whether the new gluten-free Cheerios is safe enough for the seriously gluten-free person. General Mills and many experts, like Steve Taylor, PhD, at FARRP (Food Allergy Research and Resource Program), believe the cereal is safe, pointing to a multitude of tests that back this up.

After my visit to General Mills, my take is that it’s doubtful a giant like General Mills would invest this kind of money and risk potential liability without being certain it can pull it off. The company has already made a commitment to the gluten-free community by labeling some 800 products as gluten-free. But each of us will have to make the decision to try Cheerios for ourselves. Keep in mind that some folks with celiac disease cannot tolerate oats in any form. It’s always best to check with your physician about whether you can eat oats.

The distribution pipeline makes it difficult to predict exactly when gluten-free Cheerios will appear in your local grocery. Don’t consume Cheerios until you see packages with “Simply Made Gluten Free” on the lower right corner of the box.

Food editor Beth Hillson is author of Gluten-Free Makeovers (DaCapo Lifelong) and The Complete Guide to Living Well Gluten Free (DaCapo Lifelong).