Not so cheery about gluten-free Cheerios

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In the food blogger world, the trending term Cheerios Recall exploded practically overnight when General Mills announced they were recalling 1.8 million boxes of their new gluten free Cheerios cereal.

I had erroneously made the assumption (and I’m guessing you’ve heard the adage about what happens when one assumes?) that this didn’t matter to me or to those who read my blog because I follow and teach a strict gluten free, grain free, soy free dietary plan as part of a comprehensive healthy way of living (see why by reading my story here).  Essentially, I wouldn’t touch the stuff anyway, so I hadn’t wasted energy thinking about it or even sharing the information because I assumed that people following a Paleo lifestyle felt the same way.

Little by little though, I saw and heard things that gave me pause.  

From a Paleo forum:  “Did you see that recall? Oh no, I’ve been letting my kids eat it since it came out!  And I snuck a few, too.”  From a customer:  “Jen, did you see the news about Cheerios?  You might want to tell your customers because they might not know,” (my thought: “They’re not eating them, right?”)  And finally, I had to form an opinion as a participant in the webcast for speakers at the Gluten & Allergen Free Wellness Event (I highly recommend listening to the replay here), so it was a good time for me to do a little research.

The most important things to remember about ANY gluten-free food is that this category of foods are about the highest growth category in grocery right now (up 34% in the last five years), and the FDA’s regulation about using the term “gluten-free” means that the product tests at 20 PPM (parts per million) or less. That also means that 1) food producers are developing product as fast as they can to meet demand, whether it’s good for you or not and 2) the FDA thinks that 20PPM is safe for me, a Celiac, to consume and not suffer any ill effects.  

Speaking at GFFA with presentationYou may  have heard me speak or talk about how 20PPM affects my body.  It’s not pretty.  Inflammation occurs, fits of rage take over, digestive issues ensue.  And I’m not alone in that; I’ve heard from hundreds of people that they suffer the same.  Traveling nationwide and speaking at events to share my story, I’ve built my bakery products business on a zero PPM philosophy (all of our products are strictly grain-free), because I truly believe it is that important in order to maintain good health.

That should make sense, then, as to why I didn’t have an opinion about the gluten free Cheerios recall. Until now.

What this situation has done has opened up a can of worms.  According to the Cheerio’s website (which, by the way, comes up as a sponsored link on Google, making sure it’s the first one that you see) they are “embarrassed & sorry to share an incident…that allowed wheat flour to enter our gluten-free oat-based system.”

There are lots of bloggers out there that have let their feelings be known about this.  While we’re all glad that Cheerios is embarrassed and sorry, there have been a lot of people reporting illness in the social media world of Twitter.  Many have reported illness from boxes produced outside of the dates listed as the recall.  My concern is that exposure to even a CRUMB of gluten can re-ignite antibodies, inhibiting and even reversing the healing that has been done to the gut lining, triggering such a severe reaction that disease can take root.  So what about the long-term effects from just this exposure?  And why are people still getting sick?

As I read General Mills’ statement, it occurred to me that something must have gone terribly, terribly wrong to allow wheat flour into a proclaimed established gluten-free facility.  Mistakes happen, I know, but that’s a pretty big mistake, especially if the work force had been properly trained on the difference between wheat flour, oat flour, and “gluten-free” oat flour (FYI, oats are known to cause villous atrophy).

My bigger concern is the statement above:  “an incident…allowed wheat flour to enter [their] gluten-free oat-based system.”

I don’t know about you, but when I was diagnosed as Celiac, I had to change my pans.  I had to get rid of lots of tools and gadgets in my kitchen that had been accustomed to wheat flour.  If this is news to you and you’re still having health issues, trust me…your pans are a very important thing to replace!  The word “gluten” means “glue.”  Think about that.  If you have glue in your pans, it doesn’t really wash out, especially from cracks and crevices.  This can continually expose you to gluten, causing your body to reject it…and that reaction is what can further the effects of the disease.

So, I called Cheerios to find out what this meant.  The greeting on the consumer hotline stated that they were experiencing very, very, very heavy call volume.  I decided to hold on the line, and within a few minutes a very pleasant woman greeted me and fielded my questions.  

Her answers continue to give me pause about this (and other) gluten-free facilities.  Her first answer was that the wheat flour was just offloaded into the facility.  When I pressed and said that 1.8 million boxes were a lot to recall over a movement of closed boxes, she put me on hold for a couple of minutes.  I asked specifically if wheat flour was used in the Cheerios, and she said no.  I then asked if the surfaces and machines were replaced that touched the flour.  Again she placed me on hold.

After returning to the line, she said that any part that had touched wheat flour had been “cleaned and disinfected” and product that came through those lines had tested at 20PPM or less. She said they now randomly test boxes to ensure that the guidelines are met, and have systems in place to prevent this from occurring again.

My point is that this “breach” could still keep many sick, if there is gluten residue on the equipment (whether it tests out as such or not).  And does this set a precedent?  How will large companies guard against this type of thing from happening on a larger scale?  Will companies cover up these types of things in the future to avoid the embarrassment and cost?  A recall of that volume had to be pretty expensive.

If you are consuming gluten-free Cheerios, please listen to your body.  If you are having a reaction, whether or not it’s part of the recall dates, please report the reaction to the FDA per their guidelines:

“Reporting Adverse Effects and Labeling Concerns”

“Individuals who have experienced an injury or illness that they believe is associated with having eaten a particular food, including individuals with food allergies and those with celiac disease, should first seek appropriate medical care. Afterward, individuals should contact FDA.
Individuals can report a problem with a food or its labeling, such as potential misuse of “gluten-free” claims, to FDA in either of these ways:

Contact MedWatch, FDA’s Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program, at 800‑332‑1088, or file a MedWatch voluntary report.
Contact the consumer complaint coordinator in their area. View a list of FDA consumer complaint coordinators.”

This is the only way to make sure that companies are held accountable to the greater public when it comes to using terms like “gluten-free.”  While I hope this doesn’t happen again, chances are that it might…and we, the consumers, are the voice that needs to let the FDA know when things aren’t right.  And, if you listen to the webcast above, there are even other hidden ways for companies to get around the regulation, so it becomes crucial to share your experience.

I encourage you to a) listen to your body and prioritize your health and b) report any reaction to any product directly to the FDA and c) consider a grain-free lifestyle that has proven benefits to whole health healing, while taking this type of issue completely out of the equation!

Yours in good health,

Jen of The GGF Gourmet

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