Oats have become an increasingly popular breakfast food and ingredient in recent years, especially among those following gluten-free diets. But can oats really be gluten free? The answer is complicated.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. For people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consuming gluten triggers an immune response that damages the small intestine. This can cause symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, fatigue, headache, and skin rashes.
People with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity must follow a strict lifelong gluten-free diet, avoiding all foods and products containing gluten. This includes not only obvious sources like bread, pasta, and baked goods, but also hidden sources like soy sauce, salad dressing, and even lip balm.
Do oats contain gluten?
Oats do not naturally contain gluten. However, they are often processed in facilities that also process wheat and other gluten-containing grains. This means oats can become cross-contaminated with gluten during growing, harvesting, transporting, or processing.
The level of gluten cross-contamination in oats depends on how the oats were grown and processed:
- Regular oats – These oats are commonly contaminated with other grains during growing or processing. They almost always contain at least trace amounts of gluten.
- Purity protocol oats – These oats are grown and processed under strict conditions to prevent cross-contamination with gluten. They contain very little gluten, usually less than 20 parts per million.
- Certified gluten-free oats – These oats are guaranteed to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten. This level of gluten is generally considered safe for most people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Are oats safe for a gluten-free diet?
Whether oats are safe for those on a gluten-free diet depends on the individual:
- Most people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity can tolerate certified gluten-free oats. The very low amounts of gluten are unlikely to cause issues.
- However, around 10-15% of people with celiac disease react negatively to avenin, a protein found naturally in oats. These individuals should avoid all oats.
- People with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease who want to try oats should introduce them slowly while monitoring symptoms and communicating with a healthcare provider.
Here is a table summarizing the gluten content of different types of oats:
|Type of Oats||Gluten Content||Generally Safe for Gluten-Free Diet?|
|Regular Oats||Commonly contaminated; usually at least trace amounts of gluten||No – unsafe due to gluten cross-contamination|
|Purity Protocol Oats||Less than 20 ppm of gluten||Maybe – small amount of gluten may be tolerated|
|Certified Gluten-Free Oats||Less than 20 ppm of gluten||Yes – very low gluten levels are generally safe|
Reading food labels for oats
When purchasing oats, it is important to read food labels carefully to evaluate the gluten content:
- Look for oats labeled “gluten-free” or “certified gluten-free.” This means they contain less than 20 ppm gluten.
- Oats labeled “made in a gluten-free facility” are also a safer choice.
- Avoid oats that do not specify they are gluten-free or have a “may contain wheat” statement.
- Even gluten-free oats can be cross-contaminated during processing at home. Be sure to thoroughly clean surfaces, containers, and utensils before preparing.
Are all oat products created equal?
Not all gluten-free oat products are created equal. The level of processing and purity can vary:
- Oat groats – Hulled and cleaned whole oat grains. Less processed so lower risk of gluten cross-contamination.
- Steel-cut oats – Oat groats sliced into pieces. Retain more texture.
- Rolled oats – Steamed and rolled oat groats pressed into flakes. More processed.
- Quick oats – Rolled oats cut into smaller pieces for faster cooking.
- Instant oats – Rolled oats pre-cooked and dried for very fast preparation.
In general, less processed forms like oat groats and steel-cut oats are preferred, as they undergo less handling that could introduce gluten cross-contamination. Heavily processed instant oats tend to be higher risk.
Sourcing gluten-free oats
When sourcing gluten-free oats, look for trusted, certified brands. Some reputable suppliers include:
- Bob’s Red Mill
- GF Harvest
- Pure Oats
- Oats Overnight
- Montana Gluten Free
- Canyon Bakehouse
You can also find gluten-free oats at many mainstream grocery stores, natural food stores, and online retailers. Always verify the product is certified gluten-free before purchasing.
Risk of cross-contamination from oats
Even gluten-free oats can pose a cross-contamination risk in facilities, kitchens, and homes that also handle other grains. Here are some tips for avoidance:
- Purchase oats from dedicated gluten-free facilities when possible
- Store oats in sealed containers away from gluten-containing foods
- Use separate toasters or toasting bags for oats to prevent contamination from bread
- Thoroughly clean surfaces, utensils, and equipment before and after preparing oats
Health benefits of oats
Oats offer a variety of health benefits that make them a nutritious gluten-free addition to the diet:
- Fiber – Oats contain both soluble and insoluble fiber to support digestive and heart health.
- Protein – High protein levels keep you fuller for longer and help build muscle.
- Essential vitamins & minerals – Oats contain iron, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and antioxidant compounds.
- Beta-glucan – A type of soluble fiber that slows digestion, regulates blood sugar, and lowers cholesterol.
- Avenanthramides – Unique antioxidants in oats that may lower inflammation and blood pressure.
Are oats PALEO
While oats are gluten-free, many Paleo dieters choose to avoid them. This is because oats fall in the cereal grain category along with non-gluten-free grains like wheat, rye, and barley.
However, some more flexible Paleo followers do include gluten-free oats. The Paleo diet focuses on choosing whole, unprocessed foods that were available to early hunter-gatherers. As a minimally processed whole grain, gluten-free oats can arguably fit into a less restrictive Paleo lifestyle.
For those who cannot tolerate oats, there are a few grain-free alternatives that can provide a similar texture and nutritional value:
- Buckwheat groats – A gluten-free pseudo-grain with a mild, nutty flavor.
- Quinoa flakes – Made from gluten-free quinoa grains. Contains protein and fiber.
- Millet flakes – Provides protein, fiber, and antioxidants like quercetin.
- Chia seeds – A good source of omega-3 fatty acids and soluble fiber.
- Flaxseed meal – High in anti-inflammatory alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Some find combining these alternatives approximates the texture of oatmeal quite well. Topped with plant milk and fruit, they can make a warm, comforting breakfast.
Using oats in a gluten-free diet
Gluten-free oats can be used in a variety of dishes:
- Breakfast – Oatmeal, granola, muesli, smoothies
- Baking – Bars, cookies, muffins, breads, pancakes
- Snacks – Crackers, energy bites
- Hot Cereals – Congee or rice porridge with oats
- Toppings – Oats as crunchy toppers for yogurt, fruit, desserts
Steel-cut and rolled oats hold their shape better when cooked, so work well for breakfast cereals and baking. Instant oats blend smoothly in shakes, smoothies, and energy balls.
Recipes with gluten-free oats
Here are some delicious recipes using certified gluten-free oats:
- Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal
- Berry Almond Quinoa Oat Bowl
- Pumpkin Maple Pecan Oatmeal
- Overnight Refrigerator Oats
- PB&J Oatmeal Smoothie
- Gluten Free Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
- Oat Flour Banana Bread
- Blueberry Oat Muffins
- Oatmeal Cake with Maple Frosting
- Peanut Butter Oat Bars
- Chicken Apple Sausage Oat Casserole
- Beef and Oat-Stuffed Peppers
- Broccoli Cheddar Quinoa Oat Bake
- Thai Chicken Curry with Oats
- Fish Cakes with Oat Crust
Potential drawbacks of oats
Despite their benefits, oats do have some possible downsides to consider:
- Cross-contamination – Improperly sourced oats risk being contaminated with gluten.
- Avenin sensitivity – A small number of celiacs react to avenin protein in all oats.
- High fiber content – Excessive fiber from oats can cause bloating and discomfort in some people.
- Beta-glucans effects – May impact absorption of certain medications.
Those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should exercise caution when adding oats to the diet. Listen to your body and discontinue use if any adverse symptoms develop.
When sourced from certified gluten-free suppliers, oats can be a safe and healthy addition to a gluten-free diet for most people. But due to the potential for cross-contamination, it is important to find reputable gluten-free brands of oats and read labels carefully.
Introduce oats slowly while monitoring any symptoms. Avoid oats altogether if you are sensitive to avenin protein in oats. Less processed forms like oat groats and steel-cut oats are lower risk options. With proper sourcing and handling, oats can provide beneficial nutrition and texture in the gluten-free diet.