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If you’ve been glutened by Cheerios, the FDA wants to know

When General Mills announced it had rendered Cheerios products gluten free, everyone rejoiced, especially those with celiac disease who had no choice but to give them up once they were diagnosed.

But after the boxes of gluten-free Cheerios descended upon store shelves late this summer, the experiences weren’t what many were expecting. Complaints began to roll in online, claiming that consuming these new gluten-free Cheerios had made some folks sick. And now the FDA is getting involved.

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The Cheerios gluten-free story started years ago, and General Mills announced in February that it had been working on getting Cheerios back into the hands (and bellies) of these customers. It detailed the process on its blog, saying, “As a result, each box meets and exceeds the FDA’s gluten-free threshold of having less than 20 parts per million of gluten, in order to be labeled gluten free.”

But when reports that consumers were having difficulties after eating the cereal — similar to what they experience when they eat gluten — started popping up, it caught the attention of Gluten-Free Watchdog, an organization that tests foods that have been labeled gluten free and keeps a close eye on situations like this. The organization has submitted several reports of people getting sick, or “glutened,” after eating the cereal, and it says the FDA wants to know about any and all similar reactions.

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This story hits very close to home for me, as one of my daughters was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2009. She was a pretty big gluten eater at the time — her favorite foods were Goldfish crackers, pizza, chicken nuggets… and Cheerios. We have tried many different brands of gluten-free O-shaped cereal since, but none were satisfactory to her. They just weren’t the same. We pretty much waved goodbye to Cheerios and admitted defeat.

So we were thrilled to hear that the company had decided to banish gluten from its Cheerios-making process, and eagerly looked forward to the day when we could walk into a store, buy a box — one that she could eat — and take it home. We finally found one and bought the biggest box they had, and she went to town. She even said, “It feels like I’m eating gluten!” when she first had a bowl. Not because it made her sick, but because it had been a forbidden item for so long it felt like she was breaking the rules.

She never has gotten sick from these new Cheerios, but I admit I did feel uneasy when other people — kids and adults with celiac disease — started posting in my celiac disease Facebook groups that they got glutened from a product that was labeled gluten free. Fortunately my daughter has remained healthy this whole time (and this is a child who vomits and gets pretty ill when she accidentally gets exposed to gluten), but we will definitely be watching this investigation.

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Labeling something “gluten free” is a huge responsibility. Consuming gluten when you have celiac disease can cause immediate distress, but it can also lead to serious complications, such as anemia, infertility and cancer, to name a few. I’m glad the FDA is looking into this, but I also hope this doesn’t discourage other companies from looking into gluten-free options. There is more available now than there was in 2009, and I look forward to it getting better.

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