MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ General Mills Inc. has changed the way it toasts its popular Cheerios and Wheaties cereals to make them taste better and stay crunchy longer in milk.

But the company is quick to say the changes are subtle.

''We don't want people to think it's going to be the Coke and Coke Classic situation,'' spokeswoman Kathryn Newton said Wednesday. When Coca-Cola Co. changed the formula for its popular soft drink in 1985, customers rebelled and the company had to bring back its original version.

The company said the changes were decided before it was discovered in June that an independent contractor sprayed the wrong pesticide on oats used in making Cheerios and other General Mills ceraels. The pesticide that was used is approved for use on some foods but not on oats.

The government has said that the pesticide poses no health hazard, and no boxes were recalled. The company threw away 50 million boxes of cerael following the incident.

Under the new formula, Cheerios, the company's top-selling cereal, is now crisper and has a more pronounced toasted oat flavor, Newton said. It also has about 10 percent less sodium than before. The new Wheaties also is crisper and the taste is milder, Newton said.

The changes in Cheerios and Wheaties are slight, and no changes are planned in its Honey Nut, Apple Cinnamon and Multi-Grain Cheerios.

All General Mills production facilities are using the new formula, and the reformulated cereals should be on grocery shelves in October, she said.

General Mills makes changes in about one-third of its nearly two dozen cereals each year to improve flavor and texture, Newton said. Cheerios was last reformulated about 10 years ago. It has been a little longer than that for Wheaties, she said.

Regular Cheerios holds about 3.6 percent of the U.S. cereal market by volume, down from 4.7 percent in 1989. But specialty Cheerios may have siphoned off some volume from regular Cheerios.

''A wise company would never be complacent about a brand leader, and some companies try to improve on their brand leader all the time,'' said Philip Kotler, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

''I can see this as a positive, leading a lot of people to go back to Cheerios and Wheaties when the new version is ready. As a consumer, noticing some changes had been made, I'd probably want to try it,'' Kotler said.

The changes were disclosed in the company's annual report, issued prior to General Mills' Sept. 19 annual meeting.