Canadian Celiac Association wary of gluten-free Cheerios

Association awaiting evidence showing the new line is 100% free of gluten

Canadians who suffer from celiac disease are being advised to not eat the five gluten-free Cheerios products that just hit the market.

"We are recommending that people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity do not consume these products at this time," said Sue Newell, operations manager of the Canadian Celiac Association. The association says it represents the estimated 300,000 Canadians (roughly one in every 133 people) who suffer from the celiac disease, an immune-system reaction to gluten in the small intestine that causes gastric distress and other debilitating symptoms.

Another five per cent of the general population is believed to be sensitive to gluten.

Like many cereals, Cheerios are made primarily with whole grain oats, which do not contain gluten. However, the celiac association is concerned that in some cases General Mills' supply of oats may also contain small amounts of wheat, rye and barley that were inadvertently introduced during production, transportation and processing.

READ: Gluten-free Cheerios come to Canada

General Mills said it developed a process—years in the making—to remove those contaminants from its supply of whole oats. This allowed the Minnesota-based food giant to last year introduce five Cheerios products with the gluten-free label—Original, Honey Nut, Multi-Grain, Apple Cinnamon and Chocolate Cheerios—in the United States.

Last month it began exporting those products to Canada.

While gluten-free is not a regulated claim in the U.S. (meaning it is self declared), regulations do exist in Canada. That means oats sold in Canada with a gluten-free label must be grown, transported and processed according to a Health Canada-approved purity protocol.

"In order for a food to be represented as gluten free it must comply with section B.24.018 of the Food and Drug Regulations," Rod Lister, a spokesperson for the watchdog Canadian Food Inspection Agency, wrote in an email to Canadian Grocer.

The section, he added, states a gluten-free claim can't be made if the food contains any gluten protein or modified gluten protein from wheat, oats, barley, rye, triticale or their hybridized strains.

"Our fear is that there are hot spots in their oats," said Newell.  "Any given box may be fine, but every third or fifth box may not."

According to Newell, General Mills has not publicly shared or provided evidence that its U.S.-manufactured Cheerios are 100% gluten-free.

Newell said her association will recommend that people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity avoid buying gluten-free Cheerios "until we get some evidence from General Mills—which we welcome—that shows their process really works."

For her part, the marketing director of General Mills Canada said she is "confident" the new Cheerios meet the gluten-free standard in Canada, which is less than 20 parts per million of gluten in the product.

"At General Mills, food safety and the health of our consumers is our top priority," Emma Eriksson wrote in an email.

She invites consumers to visit the gluten-free Cheerios website for more information.