Oats are a naturally gluten-free whole grain, but they are often a controversial subject in the celiac community. So what’s the deal with oats? Why aren’t they always considered gluten-free for celiac disease?
The Gluten-Free Status of Oats is Complicated
Some countries like Australia deem oats completely off-limits for a gluten-free celiac diet unless medically directed to trial them by a doctor. Other countries like the USA, consider oats to be gluten-free for celiac disease if special requirements are met.
What you may be wondering is, if this grain is naturally gluten-free, why are there so many conflicting recommendations?
Again, the answer is complicated but 3 things play into this recommendation.
- Oats are at high risk for cross-contact which can make the gluten levels unsafe for celiac.
- Second, oats have a high rate of abuse when used in gluten-free claimed products.
- Lastly, some people with celiac disease may respond to the proteins in oats like they do gluten.
We know this is a lot of information, but hang in there! Let’s delve a bit deeper into each of these points to get a clearer picture of what’s happening here.
1. Oats are at High Risk for Cross-Contact With Gluten
While oats are naturally gluten-free, the way they are grown, processed and manufactured leaves them at high risk for contamination. This is because oats are often grown in rotation with gluten-containing grains.
Meaning 1 year a farmer may grow wheat in a field, and the next year they may grow oats. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it can lead to voluntary wheat crops making it into the field and contaminating it. Additionally, oat fields can be very close to wheat fields, increasing the risk of contamination.
On top of the growing situation with oats, they are often transported and processed in the same facilities and on the same equipment as the gluten-containing grains. Introducing more risk for contamination.
All of this together creates a risky environment for producing oats that are contaminated to unsafe levels for people with celiac. This is where strict standards of safety with oats come in.
2. Oats Have a High Rate of Abuse When Used in Gluten-Free Foods
Another reason why not all oats are considered gluten-free is that they have a high rate of abuse when used in gluten-free foods. We saw this when General Mills initially launched gluten-free Cheerios and sourced unsafe oats that were tested to above 20ppm and made people sick.
We also saw this in the 2018 study the Gluten-Free Watchdog did on gluten-free claimed products. They tested 328 products that had a gluten-free claim for gluten and found that 13 of them contained gluten above the FDA limit. Of those 13, almost half of them were products with oats.
Granted, 13/328 works out to be a <5% risk of mislabeling, which is fairly low. This is one of the reasons why most celiac dietitians recommend certified gluten-free oats because you know a 3rd party has verified the safety of processing, ingredient sourcing, and actual status of the products.
We see this with gluten-free Oreos, which are celiac-safe. We know this because GFCO has certified them to be gluten-free. Meaning they’ve tested the product to have <10ppm of gluten and have verified the ingredient sourcing and processing practices to ensure a safe product.
3. Some People With Celiac May Respond to Oats Like They do Gluten
There are many studies that report that uncontaminated gluten-free oats are safe for people with celiac disease. This 2017 study, for example, comparing improvement between 715 people with celiac consuming oats and 154 people with celiac not consuming oats, found healing rates to be basically the same.
While many studies report the safety of uncontaminated oats in most people with celiac, some studies like this one done in 2003, report a very small population of people with celiac may react to oats like they do gluten. In this case, you find tolerance and recommendations for oats on a gluten-free diet to vary greatly by person, provider, and country.
Ultimately, we recommend doing what your provider tells you when it comes to oats because they are more aware of your situation.
Note: People With Celiac May Have an Oat Allergy or Intolerance
To further complicate the safety of oats on a gluten-free diet, many people with celiac may also confuse a gluten reaction to oats with an allergic reaction or intolerance to them. It is not uncommon to see additional dietary restrictions in the form of food sensitivities and food allergies in people with celiac disease.
Gluten-Free Oat Products
Because there are so many things that play into the true gluten-free status of oats, the general consensus in the USA is that oats must be certified gluten-free or purity protocol to be safe. Below are some gluten-free foods with oats that you can buy that meet these standards.
Purely Elizabeth sells certified gluten-free oat products. They offer oatmeal cups that are easy to grab and go with. And around $4 a cup, it’s a great option for those wanting to include this whole grain into their diet. They also sell certified gluten-free bags of oats too.
One Degree Organic Foods
One Degree Organic Foods sells sprouted gluten-free oats that are certified gluten-free by beyond celiac. (See that little bright green symbol to the left of the QR code on the bag above?) This is another great option costing around $6 for those looking for gluten-free foods.
88 Acres is a seed and oat bar and granola company. They make certified gluten-free products so you know that anything with oats from their company is safe. From bars to single-serving granola packets, to big bags, 88 Acres has you covered!
Putting It All Together
To sum things up, oats are naturally gluten-free but can be contaminated by gluten during growing and processing. Additionally, a small subset of people with celiac may react to oats like they do gluten, or due to an intolerance or allergy, and thus, tolerance may vary person by person.
Ultimately, in the USA, if you can tolerate oats, you want to look for purity protocol oats or certified gluten-free oats. In some cases, the company may have a statement on the label that the product or oats are tested and verified to have <20ppm of gluten (like Bob’s Red Mill) which is a good indication of safety as well.
And when in doubt on if you should or should eat gluten-free oats, talk to your celiac specialized doctor or dietitian.