It’s been roughly a decade since I last ate a bowl of Cheerios breakfast cereal, but I was a “Cheerios kid” once. Long before I was diagnosed with celiac disease in adulthood in 2007, I ate box after box of plain Cheerios in my childhood.
Growing up, my mother taught my younger brother and I that she considered most breakfast cereals to be candy. As such, they weren’t even allowed in the house, let alone eaten for breakfast. Only a handful of brands passed her lofty cereal standards: sometimes Kix, certainly Raisin Bran, and above all else, Cheerios.
I don’t know how many boxes of Cheerios it took, but I remember the momentous day when it arrived in the mail: a plastic commemorative cereal bowl in the signature yellow color of a Cheerios box. On the inside bottom of the bowl—readable only after you’d finished eating your latest serving—were the words, “You did it, Peter! You helped make Cheerios #1!”
What a proud and youthful Cheerios cereal eater I was, doing my duty for sake of the greater cause! I’ll come back to Cheerios’ #1 status in a moment.
The Cheerios Saga
Unless you’ve been truly off the grid in recent months, it’s been hard to miss the significant ups and downs of Cheerios going gluten-free. Others have covered it extensively and well—from the celiac activist voice of Gluten Dude, to the tour de force of community rallying that is Shirley at Gluten Free Easily, to the institutional memory of the gluten-free community of Erin at Gluten-Free Fun, to the rigorous hawk-eye that is Tricia at Gluten Free Watchdog.
Here’s the bullet-point recap:
- Earlier this year, General Mills announced that Cheerios were going gluten-free (complete with a sentimental television commercial aired on major networks), using a newly developed proprietary process to remove wheat and other gluten-containing grains from the cross-contaminated oats supply chain.
- Some in the gluten-free community praised the heavens, while others exercised skepticism, expressed outright words of caution, and/or reported negative reactions to the so-called “gluten-free” Cheerios.
- After receiving a growing number of consumer complaints, the U.S. FDA opened an investigation into the gluten-free status of Cheerios earlier this fall.
- Then, in the first week of October, the bomb dropped. General Mills issued a recall for 1.8 million boxes of “gluten-free” Cheerios because wheat flour had been errantly added to the mix at a California facility.
- Now, as of early November, two plaintiffs have filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against General Mills, while the company—no surprise—has been in major damage-control mode.
Beyond the Saga
On one hand, this is obviously a very big deal. When one of the country’s—and the world’s—major cereal brands in theory goes gluten-free, but seemingly fails so spectacularly at doing so, it becomes a watershed moment … for the celiac and greater gluten-free community, for General Mills, for the broader ready-to-eat breakfast cereal market, and for any food manufacturer considering making a foray into gluten-free products.
But there’s another side to this story I haven’t seen anyone talking about—at least not yet. And that side of the story is this: Why do we care so much that Cheerios went gluten-free? Why are gluten-free Cheerios such a thing?
The answer to that question begins with the people in the gluten-free community who care that Cheerios went gluten-free in the first place. I suspect they (you?) are—like me—to greater and lesser degrees former “Cheerios kids.” You’re probably middle aged, with or without children, and probably with fond memories of the Cheerios of your childhood. And getting those warmly remembered food experiences back today—either for yourself and/or for your children—is important. Which is why Cheerios going gluten-free was such a notable milestone in the recent history of gluten-free product conversions.
Cereal, Cheerios, and the American Consumer
Yet this is about more than getting a general food experience back in new and improved gluten-free form. This is about getting back breakfast cereal, and Cheerios in particular.
Americans love our cold breakfast cereal. Just a handful of countries account for more than half of global consumption, and in that “elite” set, America is on the top. It’s an $8–10 billion per year market in the U.S., and though recently breakfast cereal has been losing market share to foods such as yogurt, eggs, and nutrition bars, it remains the belle of breakfast.
And really, if we’re honest about it, at the American breakfast table, a single dominant cereal brand is king of the hill: Cheerios. In 2014, Cheerios boasted $994 million in sales, more than double the second-place brand (Frosted Flakes). Think about both the staggering size of that sales figure and the lead against its nearest competitor. General Mills last year sold nearly $1 billion of Cheerios and had more than $500 million on its nearest rival.
So, in a way that’s far more literal and far less metaphorical than one might think at first, Cheerios is synonymous with cereal, and cereal is synonymous with breakfast (at least in the U.S.). Thus when Cheerios went gluten-free earlier this year, somewhere deep down in the gluten-free community’s psyche, General Mills didn’t just give us a new gluten-free product; General Mills also gave us back breakfast.
I think about our children—and especially Charlotte, who’s strictly gluten-free like me—and I let my mind drift 10, 20, 30 years ahead. She’s never eaten Cheerios and probably won’t anytime soon. She won’t have memories of being a “Cheerios kid” as I once was … and that’s just fine.
But what will she remember? What strong and positive gluten-free breakfast food memories are we building today that she’ll carry with her into adulthood?
Will she remember the bowls of Nature’s Path Organic Koala Crisp and Panda Puffs kids’ cereals we keep in our pantry for school mornings when time is tight and the family needs to get out the door? Along similar lines, will the pioneering gluten-free brands we know now—Bob’s Red Mill, Pamela’s, Enjoy Life Foods, and a long list of others—be remembered fondly tomorrow by the gluten-free children of today? Will these brands be for the next gluten-free generation what conventional brands have been for the late-diagnosed of this generation?
Only time will reveal the answer to these questions. But I do know this much confidently here and now: for Charlotte, for me, for anyone in the gluten-free community, breakfast can and must be about more than the gluten-free status of Cheerios. Is Cheeriogate serious? Absolutely. Yet gluten-free Cheerios also shouldn’t be such a thing. Breakfast—gluten-free or not—offers us so much more than a cold bowl of dry, hard, round, tiny “donuts” made from processed oat flour.