This week General Mills made headlines with their "gluten free" Cheerios. After a few months of individuals reporting that the "gluten free" cheerios had caused them to fall ill; it was finally announced that Cheerios was recalling 1.8 million boxes of Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios produced at their plant in Lodi, California.
The boxes in question, as it turns out, actually contained wheat. Somehow wheat flour made its way into these boxes that were manufactured in what was supposed to be a gluten free "system". This has caused outrage amongst the gluten free community, and rightfully so. I have read countless blog posts this week from fantastic writers who represent the gluten free community, people who have posed incredible questions about how this could have happened and what will be done to correct it. But the point that has really hit a nerve with me is the lack of understanding of the severity of celiac disease and the effects of gluten on our systems.
The statement from General Mills refers to gluten as an allergen, which yes of course it is. Numerous people have allergies to wheat or have gluten sensitivities. But for those of us with celiac disease, what we live with is not an allergy. We live with an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten. This is not to downplay or discount allergies (I have plenty of allergies myself) and the people with gluten allergies and sensitivities are some of the biggest advocates and most influential allies in the gluten free community, and I am forever grateful to them. But I wish there was more focus on the effects of gluten on those of us with celiac disease. A gluten free diet is our prescription, and that is what I want these big companies to understand.
Many people cite digestive discomfort, headaches, and fatigue as ramifications of being glutened. But what I would like to stress, as someone who has celiac, is that the effects of being glutened go far beyond these physical symptoms. Yes these symptoms are horrible and yes it take days, weeks, even months to recover from exposure to gluten, but what is really going on is that gluten damages our intestines; hindering our ability to absorb nutrients. Beyond feeling sick, we are being set back in our road to recovery, and the damage done by gluten is cumulative. Even if you have maintained a gluten free diet, incidences of exposure to gluten can result in the development of additional autoimmune diseases among other things.
It is common knowledge that individuals with celiac suffer physical discomfort when not adhering to the gluten free diet, but did you also know that untreated celiac disease increases the risk of cancer 200-300%? Or that it can lead to infertility, liver disease, diabetes, thyroid disease, neuropathy, osteoporosis, and behavioral disorders?
That is why this issue with Cheerios matters so much, this error that was made is truly a fatal one for people with celiac disease. The immediate discomfort is bad enough, but the long term health implications are not to be discounted or overlooked. I can only hope that this serves as a lesson: to people who don't understand why celiacs are skeptical of labeled foods, to those who treat gluten-free eating as a fad diet as opposed to a prescription and medical necessity, and to the big companies who fail to take us seriously or keep us safe.