Are Oats Gluten Free?
How can something be considered gluten free in one country, but not in another. Even though it doesn’t contain any gluten at all? Today we are talking about the problem of oats.
This oat situation actually affects me personally, well it affects all gluten free people, but it affects me because I’m from New Zealand, a country which has totally vetoed oats for a gluten free diet, but I currently live in the U.K. a country which says pure oats, are fine for a gluten free diet. So yes, I eat oats! And every time I post a food containing oats on my instagram, I get at least one person asking why I would disrespect my home countries standing on oats? Honestly, who thought oat’s could be so political. But in truth, the reason for that I do eat oats is because I moved to the UK a few weeks after I got diagnosed with coeliac disease, and I didn’t even realise oats were a no go back home. I often wonder if I would I have still eaten them over here had I known? Probably yes, just because they are in everything over here and I have access to yearly blood tests that would be able to show if my antibodies have raised.
What is an oat?
The oat (Avena sativa), sometimes called the common oat, is a species of cereal grain grown for its seed. Oat products are frequently contaminated by other gluten-containing grains, mainly wheat and barley. mostly because they’re often grown alongside or in rotation with wheat, then processed on machinery shared with gluten-containing grains. However, pure oats, grown and processed by themselves do not contain gluten. So what’s the big deal then?
Well first we have to quickly understand gluten a little better.
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, barley and rye. The two main proteins in wheat gluten are glutenin and gliadin. And gliadin is whats responsible for most of the adverse health effects of gluten for coeliacs. Now oats contain a very similar protein called Avenin, not the same but similar enough to cause some coeliacs to react in the same way that they do with gluten. It’s debated that between 1% and 20% of coeliacs react to oats. Yes, that’s a wide margin but the research is still ongoing.
So why is there a great divide on whether oats are considered gluten free of not?
Great question. In New Zealand and Australia, the definition of gluten includes glutenin and gliadin in wheat, hordein in barley, and secalin in rye, and Avenin in oats. So oats fall under the umbrella of gluten.
Research by Dr Robert Anderson for Coeliac New Zealand has shown that approximately one in five people with coeliac disease react to pure, uncontaminated oats.
And their reasoning is since you cannot determine who the one in five is, and we know that gut damage can occur even without symptoms. The advice from Coeliac New Zealand is that oats should not be consumed. Which I think is reasonable, and a very safe way of looking at it. Especially for people with non-responsive or asymptomatic coeliac disease (that’s people with coeliacs that show no physical symptoms).
Coeliac UK have a different set of advice which is that Gluten free oats can be introduced to your diet at any stage but if you have ongoing symptoms or any concerns whilst including gluten free oats in your diet, please review their use with your health professional who can monitor you and give you specific advice.
They do also point out the benefit of oats themselves, seeing as they are a superfood. Oats provide a good source of soluble fibre, which can maintain a healthy gut and may help to treat high cholesterol and keep blood sugars stable. They are also a great source of antioxidants, and high in iron and folate - which is something that coeliacs are often deficient in.
So I can totally understand that if you are someone that reacts to gluten, or can tell when you’ve been 'glutened', and have access to a doctor that can keep track of your antibodies levels, then there is no reason as to why you shouldn’t be able to eat them. But then again, as Coeliac NZ points out, there is a whole group of coeliacs that don’t have symptoms after consuming gluten or oats, but will still be damaging the lining of their gut.
There was also some recent research conducted by Dr Jason Allan Tye-Din with a Coeliac UK grant about clarifying the safety of oats in coeliac disease, and they even mention that ‘In Australia and NZ, oats are still excluded from the gluten free diet (FSANZ code) – patients here are desperate to eat them!’ Which I thought was funny. UK taking a swing at the oat stance back home.
The coeliac disease research field is pretty hardcore.
The conclusion of Dr Jason’s study by the way was that ‘most studies supports clinical safety of oats for the majority of people with coeliac disease ‘. So it’s pretty clear that the fact that a minority of coeliacs will react to oats is universally accepted. The only difference is how each country uses that information.
At the end of the day, my advice is to follow the advice of the coeliac organisation where you live and get treated for coeliac disease. Because I’ve been eating oats and have not had any issues arise in my blood tests, I’m happy to continue eating them until I go back to New Zealand. But because most of my baking is based around New Zealand foods, and most of the people that bake them are New Zealanders themselves, I have decided to never ever use oats in any of my recipes.
I’d also like to mention that coeliac disease research is always going on, so it will be interesting to see if anyone changes their stance on oats.