Oats. The most common and beloved cereal grain appearing on breakfast tables worldwide, but are they gluten-free? Are oats safe for celiacs? Can those with celiac disease eat oats and reap the benefits of such a nutrient-packed whole grain? Are all oats gluten-free? Let's clear up the confusion once and for all before you dive into that bowl of oatmeal!
Oats, how I love thee. From oatmeal to granola, oats are a whole grain superstar! That is, as long as they're certified gluten-free. They must be certified gluten-free because most oats are grown in rotated fields with gluten-containing grains, processed in the same facilities and lines of gluten-containing products and grains. It's sad that this naturally gluten-free grain is mostly unsafe for those of us with celiac disease to buy and eat, right off the grocery store shelf. It's time we clear the confusion around oats up and learn the proper safety precautions someone with celiac disease must take.
Let's start from the beginning
Let's talk about the humble oat's background. Rated the world's #1 breakfast food with the top producing countries being Russia, Canada, US, Finland, and Poland. First used as a staple grain to feed livestock, it's now essential to our breakfast tables. Oats are one tough cereal grain and can withstand a lot in terms of growing and soil conditions. When the seed (which is the oat) is harvested from the oat plant, it is then steamed and flattened to create "old fashioned" rolled oats. They can also be processed further to produce quick or instant oats, oat flour, oat bran, groats, oat fiber, or even steel-cut or Scottish oats. The longer they are steamed and flattened, the more they're processed, the quicker they will cook (i.e. those instant oat packets you can buy). No matter the degree of processing, the bran and germ of the oat usually stays intact so you are almost always able to get those whole grain nutrition benefits.
What makes oats so healthy?
We constantly hear how having whole grain oats for breakfast is one of the healthiest choices you can make to start your day. This is because oats contain significant amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, including manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, copper, biotin, Vitamin B1, magnesium, chromium, and zinc. Oats have been proven to lower LDL cholesterol, lower blood pressure, protect your heart and cardiovascular system, stabilizes blood sugar and keep you feeling fuller for longer (due to the soluble fiber and complex carbohydrates), helping with healthy weight management. Oats have amazing amounts of antioxidants and have been shown to decrease the risk of certain cancers, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and childhood asthma.
But, are oats gluten-free?
Simple answer, yes. Real answer? A small percentage. Oats are inherently gluten-free. Oats in their whole natural state, straight from the oat grass which they are grown (that oat that we cultivate and harvest is a seed), there is NO gluten in them. However, oat grass is commercially grown in rotating fields with other gluten-containing grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye. These three grains contain gluten. To harvest the oats, commercial farmers use, not only the same soil but the same machinery and processing mechanisms. This can be having the oats shipped in the same trucks, storing in the same bins, etc. Oats are not a problem for the typical person. This type of cross-contamination is not dangerous to a typical person, but for that 1% of celiacs, it can be deadly.
With the rise of "gluten-free" foods and the trend every persisting as a health craze, commercial farmers have been pushed by food manufacturers to up their oat production and provide unregulated, uncertified, "gluten-free" oats. These are touted as being "gluten-free" via three popular buzzwords:
- Mechanically Cleaned Oats
- Mechanically Sorted Oats
- Mechanically Separated Oats
Processors are claiming these practices magically make the contaminated oats, gluten-free via "automation with machines to sort the oat seeds by color, size, and shape. These machines are expected to remove wheat and barley seeds from oat seeds during processing." (source) How can manufacturers then label food products "gluten-free" if they are produced with these contaminated oats? (Remeber, cross-contamination doesn't go away by removing the gluten that was touching it and "cleaning" the oats does not mean they are scrubbing them with soap and water). The FDA announced their lackluster Gluten-Free Labeling rule (finally) on August 5th, 2013, for voluntary labeling of gluten-free foods. A few key points: (all sourced from the FDA documentation)
"Any grain other than the gluten-containing grains of wheat, rye, barley, or their crossbred hybrids like triticale can be labeled gluten-free if the presence of any unavoidable gluten due to cross-contact situations is less than 20 ppm."
"The final rule defines "gluten-free" as meaning that the food either is inherently gluten-free; or does not contain an ingredient that is: 1) a gluten-containing grain (e.g., spelt wheat); 2) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat flour); or 3) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch), if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food. Also, any unavoidable presence of gluten in the food must be less than 20 ppm."
- Oats do not have to be certified to carry the label "gluten-free" if they contain less than 20 ppm of gluten.
"A food labeled gluten-free cannot be intentionally made with any amount of a gluten-containing grain (wheat, rye, barley, or their crossbred hybrids like triticale) or an ingredient derived from such grain that was not processed to remove gluten. The goal of manufacturing any food labeled gluten-free should be for the food to not contain any gluten or to contain the lowest amount possible that is less than 20 ppm gluten. One goal of FDA’s regulatory definition of the term “gluten-free” is to limit consumer confusion when reading ingredient lists of foods labeled gluten-free."
"The term “cross-contact” is not defined in the final rule, but gluten cross-contact generally refers to the unavoidable presence of gluten in a food due to contact with a gluten-containing food (wheat, rye, barley, or their crossbred hybrids like triticale). The U.S. Grain Standards allow commodity grains, legumes, and seeds to contain a small percentage of another commodity grain as a result of commingling during production. The presence of gluten in a grain, legume, or seed that is naturally free of gluten from this type of commingling is an example of cross-contact. The typical practice of crop rotation, as well as the shared use of harvesting and transport equipment and storage silos, often results in gluten-containing grains coming into contact with other grains, legumes, and seeds that are naturally free of gluten. Furthermore, manufacturing facilities that use shared production equipment to produce foods both with and without gluten could result in gluten cross-contact. Any grain other than the gluten-containing grains of wheat, rye, barley, or their crossbred hybrids like triticale can be labeled gluten-free, if it meets the definition, including that the presence of any unavoidable gluten due to cross-contact situations is less than 20 ppm."
The 20ppm threshold
Is it enough? Is it enough for someone with celiac disease? This is where the controversy arises. Third-party verified gluten-free labeled foods contain less than 10 to 5ppm of gluten. The FDA did not follow this guideline with their ruling. Now, I want you to think about this:
You consume a bowl of "gluten-free" Quacker oatmeal, about ½ cup, 5 days a week. You could be consuming 100ppm of gluten right there. You also enjoyed some "gluten-free" Cheerios, 4 servings total throughout the week (however, if we are being realistic, no one eats a single serving of cereal). That is another 80ppm of gluten. However, let's say that box of Cheerios contained 40ppm of gluten (not all product is tested during manufacturing). Well, you can see how cross-contamination begins to add up. The gluten contamination is accumulating in your body, damaging the intestines. That week you end up feeling sluggish and with a bit too many trips to the bathroom. But WAIT! You also go out to dinner and your plate of gluten-free pasta may have been dusted with falling flour particles from the kitchen. Your "gluten accumulation" for the week is now through the roof.
By mechanically "sorting" oats that come from contaminated fields, bins with other grains, etc., manufacturers believe that the contaminated oats are dispersed enough throughout the product that will be sold, that the volume of gluten will not be at a high enough level to be considered as containing gluten.
When something is considered "purity protocol", this means that the oats, in the case, "oats that are harvested, transported, stored, processed, and manufactured under good manufacturing practices (GMPs) to minimize the presence of gluten, can safely be consumed by some persons with celiac disease" (source documentation on the definition of purity protocol).
The Gluten Intolerance Group states, "Purity Protocol is a farm-to-plate method of ensuring that oats are gluten-free and have met requirements for seed stock purity as well as criteria for harvesting, transport, storage, processing, and manufacturing".
The "gluten" in oats:
Here is another caveat to all of this. Oats are gluten-free, naturally. However, oats contain their own form of "gluten" (i.e. sticky protein). This protein is called Avenin. Avenin is similar to the gliadin proteins found in grains like wheat, which trigger the autoimmune response in celiac disease. This protein is the reason why a large percentage of those with celiac disease CAN NOT tolerate any oats whatsoever. Even purity protocol oats. Experts have recommended that those with celiac disease only consume up to 30-50g of dry purity protocol oats a day, in the first place, regardless of one's sensitivity to Avenin.
If you find you can tolerate purity protocol oats, you can increase the amount you eat, slowly. The method of cooking the oats can play into how well your body can digest them. Try soaking the oats before cooking, baking your oatmeal, baking with oat flour, or baking granola. These methods make oats a bit easier to digest, besides eating straight stovetop, microwave, or raw oats.
Purity Protocol Gluten-Free Oats
The ONLY oat processors and companies in the US and Canada, currently providing 100% safe, purity protocol (as per GIG definition), certified gluten-free oats are:
Other oat products sold by these brands using the above processors and have been verified: (This is not a 100% complete list, but a list with verified brands).
- Gluten-Free Prairie
- Libre Naturals
- Glanbia Naturals
- The GFB
- Freedom Foods
- Trader Joe's (gluten-free labeled oat products)
- Bakery On Main
- Enjoy Life Foods
How to tell if the "gluten-free" label is a REAL certification
There are only four certification labels you can trust and look for that indicate 3rd party purity protocol gluten-free verification:
- The National Celiac Association: <5ppm (now partnered with The Gluten-Free Food Program)
- The Gluten-Free Certification Organization: <10ppm
- Beyond Celiac Endorsed Gluten-Free Certification Program: via The Allergen Control Group Inc. which provides training and certifications.
- The National Sanitation Foundation: <15ppm
There are plenty of gluten-free grains out there and oats may not be the best one for someone with celiac disease. Regardless of if you source purity protocol oats. Remember, having celiac disease is NOT the same as "eating gluten-free". No one with celiac disease should be consuming Cheerios or a bag of granola that says "organic rolled oats". Those are NOT safe.
20ppm of gluten is a lot. It adds up. 20ppm X numerous servings and meals over a week (from just oats!)...You do the math. Don't make yourself sick when you can avoid it by making good decisions in the grocery store and reading labels. Many recipes online and on Instagram, by "influencers" who are NOT celiac, use "oats", "oat flour", etc. and then taught the recipe as GLUTEN-FREE. Don't fall into the trap of making and eating an oat heavy diet (even with purity protocol oats!) Celiac disease is a severe AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE and your gluten-free diet and lifestyle is a medical diet and necessity!
Hey! If you need an oatmeal alternative, quinoa flakes are JUST the thing you need.
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