I’m saying cheerio to Cheerios! In fact, I already have. I don’t plan to ever eat them again. Why? Let me show you…
I’ve been struggling with one of my worst breakouts of dermatitis herpetiformis (DH) in years. By struggling, I mean it’s all I can do not to claw myself until I bleed. I can’t sleep because I itch. I can’t concentrate because I itch. I’m irritable, you guessed it, because I ITCH!
If you have this skin version of celiac disease you know what I mean. There is nothing that itches like this. Sixteen years ago, it was the itchy rash that drove me to the doctor with celiac disease. That wasn’t my only symptom, but it was the one that was hardest to ignore.
Now I am aware I just need to find whatever it is that’s triggering my immune system and stop consuming it. By process of elimination, I finally landed on oats. Since Christmas, I have eaten Glutenfreeda instant oatmeal, Nature’s Path Organic instant oatmeal, and Cheerios. All are labeled gluten-free.
According to glutenfreewatchdog.org, both General Mills and Nature’s Path begin with oats that have been contaminated with wheat, barley, and/or rye. They then mechanically and optically sort the oats to remove the contaminants. General Mills tests and validates the resulting flour, then at the end of the process again tests gluten levels.
In order to label a product as gluten-free, it must contain less than 20 parts per million gluten. In 2015, General Mills recalled 1.8 million boxes of Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios due to wheat contamination. One sample in that lot tested at 43 parts per million gluten.
I don’t necessarily believe that another accidental contamination has occurred. It’s much more likely that I encountered a hot spot of contamination in the cereal. This could be true and the tests could still be compliant.
In other words, General Mills is not misrepresenting test results. The question mark comes from the way the contaminants are removed and the tests are conducted.
After contaminants are removed from the oats, Cheerios begin with validated gluten-free flour. This validation is based on the mean test results from a 24-hour production cycle of flour. Once the Cheerios are cereal, the product test is also based on the mean results of a 24-hour production cycle.
Gluten Free Watch Dog describes the protocol for determining a lot mean as:
(As reported to Gluten Free Watchdog and confirmed October 12, 2018)
To arrive at a lot mean for gluten-free Cheerios, the following protocol is followed:
Twelve to eighteen boxes of cereal are pulled during a production cycle or “lot”.
The contents of each individual box are ground.
A sub-sample of ground product is taken from each box.
The sub-samples are composited—meaning they are combined.
The combined sub-samples are subject to additional grinding.
A minimum of six, 1-gram sample extractions are taken from this combined, ground sample (Note, formerly this was a minimum of twelve, 0.25-gram sample extractions).
Extractions are tested using the Ridascreen Fast Gliadin (R7002) and cocktail extraction solution.
Once the product is ground and mixed, the test is no longer necessarily giving an accurate representation of what may be in your spoon or bowl. It is also worth noting that the number of samples taken decreased from 2015 to 2018.
Testing protocols like this could help explain why a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2018 found that celiac patients adhering to a gluten-free diet typically consume up to 244mg of gluten per day. The study estimated the average inadvertent exposure to be 150–400mg using a stool test and 300–400mg using a urine test.
This inadvertent exposure is significant. A mere 15mg can cause symptoms in some of us. The damage underlying the symptoms undermines our attempts to be healthy. We certainly don’t spend our time reading labels, asking uncomfortable questions, missing out on our favorites, and enduring eye rolls just to end up ingesting gluten anyway. It is disheartening to know that labels may not present an accurate representation of the amount of gluten contained in food.
Of course, packaged foods are not the only source of gluten contamination. Restaurant food is a gamble as well. Some kitchens are better than others at avoiding cross-contact.
No matter how much awareness of gluten sensitivity increases, there is an ever-evolving question regarding the best way to navigate everyday life and avoid gluten. It isn’t realistic to think I can grow my own gluten-free grains, nuts, and seeds and grind my own flour. It is too isolating to never consume restaurant food.
I can cook the majority of my food at home. I can observe adverse reactions to specific foods. I can research sources of oats and testing protocols. I can eliminate Cheerios.
Due to my recent experience, I will no longer purchase “gluten-free” oat products that come from known contaminated sources. That means the remaining Nature’s Path oatmeal in my pantry is being donated. Once this round of DH heals, I will try Glutenfreeda oatmeal again…maybe. The memory of this itching will have to fade first.
The good news is, my rash is diminishing and I learned something about gluten-free oats. I cannot go backward. I must trust that my body will heal as miserable as I may be while it does.
I could have chosen to visit a dermatologist who may have prescribed Dapsone. That approach might have given me temporary relief, but once I quit eating Cheerios, I was better as quickly as the rash would have responded to the prescription. For me, a long-term solution is worth the time it takes to find it. You may not feel the same.
Each of us has unique tolerance levels, priorities, and health goals. We have to find the balance that works for us. Information is critical to finding that balance.
Now that I know more, I’m saying cheerio to Cheerios!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”