Is Panera Bread steel cut oatmeal gluten free?

Gluten free diets have become increasingly popular in recent years, with more and more people choosing to avoid gluten for medical reasons or simply as a lifestyle choice. For those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, adhering to a strict gluten free diet is medically necessary to avoid adverse health effects. Even for those without gluten-related medical issues, some choose to go gluten free in an effort to reduce inflammation or feel better overall.

Whatever the reason for following a gluten free diet, it can pose challenges when dining out or eating on the go. Food prep and manufacturing facilities that handle gluten-containing grains may risk cross-contamination of gluten free items. So gluten free consumers must pay close attention to ingredient labels and ask questions to determine if a menu item is a safe choice.

Panera Bread has worked to expand their gluten free offerings in recent years. But one menu item that often raises questions is their steel cut oatmeal. Oats themselves are naturally gluten free, but the risk of cross-contamination exists depending on how the oats are grown and processed. So is Panera Bread’s steel cut oatmeal gluten free? Here is a detailed look at what we know.

About Gluten and Celiac Disease

To understand if an oatmeal is truly gluten free, it helps to first understand what gluten is and how it impacts those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley. It helps give elasticity to dough, which is why it’s so commonly used in baking. Gluten is found not only in breads, but also in pasta, cereals, baked goods, and many processed foods.

For individuals with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, ingestion of gluten triggers immune system damage to the small intestine. Even small quantities of gluten can cause issues. Over time, this damage can hinder nutrient absorption and lead to symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, weight loss, fatigue, and anemia. The only treatment is a strict lifelong gluten free diet.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity causes similar gastrointestinal and extraintestinal symptoms tied to gluten exposure. But it does not cause the same immune response and intestinal damage as celiac disease. Those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity may be able to tolerate small amounts of gluten. But symptoms may emerge with larger quantities of gluten intake.

Beyond those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, many others simply feel better avoiding gluten. Some report benefits like reduced bloating, less fatigue, improved focus, or increased energy. The gluten free diet has also been popular for weight loss, though there is a lack of strong evidence that gluten itself affects weight.

Why Oats Need to Be Assessed for Gluten Content

Oats are naturally gluten free. But because of how oats are grown and processed, they have a high risk of gluten cross-contamination. This means oats can pick up traces of gluten from contact with wheat, rye, or barley fields or processing equipment.

Most experts advise that individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should choose oats that are labeled “gluten free” or shown to have gluten levels below 20 ppm (parts per million). Oats simply labeled as “whole grain” may still contain significant gluten.

There are a few ways oats can be safer choices:

– Specially grown oats: Some companies grow oats in dedicated gluten free fields and transport them in gluten free vehicles to avoid cross-contamination.

– Isolation during processing: Gluten free oats may be processed on equipment only used for gluten free grains, or processed first before other grains.

– Lab testing: Finished oat products may undergo lab analysis to confirm gluten levels fall under the 20 ppm cutoff for gluten free certification.

Without such steps to preserve purity, oats run a very high chance of being cross-contaminated with gluten-containing grains. So assessment of specific farming and manufacturing practices is important.

What Type of Oats Does Panera Use?

Steel cut oats follow an intact groat oat processing method, where the inner whole oat kernel is simply chopped into pieces rather than flaked or ground. This allows more texture and results in a chewier oatmeal.

According to Panera Bread’s website, their steel cut oatmeal is made with gluten free oats that are grown and processed in a gluten free facility. Their supplier operates farms and production facilities that are 100% dedicated to gluten free grains only.

This provides assurance that Panera’s oats are isolated from wheat, rye, and barley through the entire supply chain. The farms where their oats are grown are free of gluten-containing crops. And the equipment used for harvesting, transporting, and processing their oats does not handle any gluten sources.

Do Any Other Ingredients Contain Gluten?

Assuming the oats themselves have been protected from any gluten cross-contact, it’s also important to assess any additional ingredients in an oatmeal. Even if the main ingredient is gluten free, other add-ins could introduce trace gluten.

According to Panera’s website, the only ingredients in their steel cut oatmeal are:

– Gluten free steel cut oats
– Water
– Sea salt

None of these additional ingredients raise any gluten concerns. The end product does not contain any thickening agents, flavorings, or other higher risk components.

Panera also notes their oatmeal is prepared in a dedicated gluten free oat kettle separate from any other ingredients. And it’s served in bowls that have not contacted any gluten-containing foods.

What About Risk of Cross-Contact in the Restaurant?

While Panera Bread takes steps to avoid gluten in their oat ingredients and production, cross-contact could theoretically occur in the restaurant. Some factors that impose risk include:

– Shared kitchen and cooking equipment: If gluten-containing foods come in contact with the same surfaces, it could transfer traces of gluten to the gluten free oatmeal.

– Shared serving tools: Scoops or ladles used for multiple menu items may transfer gluten between foods.

– Shared display areas: Bulk oatmeal containers stored or displayed beside wheat-based foods could enable gluten transfer.

– Shared preparation areas: Gluten particles could make their way into gluten free dishes if prepared side-by-side.

– Shared cooking oils: If fryers are used for breaded, gluteny items, the oil could pick up traces of gluten.

– Shared utensils: Blenders, toasters, etc. used for both gluten free and gluten foods may transfer gluten between items.

– Airborne particles: If gluten-containing baked goods or breads are prepared in the same kitchen, airborne gluten particles could land in gluten free dishes.

However, Panera notes they take precautions to prevent cross-contact at the restaurant level:

– Dedicated gluten free oat kettle
– Oatmeal held and served in disposable bowls
– Use of dedicated kitchen tools and prep areas

With proper precautions by employees, the restaurant environment likely poses low risk of gluten cross-contact. But human error is always a possibility in shared kitchen facilities.

What Do Other Resources Say About Panera Oatmeal?

Reviewing other trusted resources can provide helpful perspective on the gluten free status of Panera’s oatmeal:

– GlutenFreeWatchdog, run by Tricia Thompson who has a doctorate in food science, says Panera’s gluten free steel cut oatmeal contains less than 5 ppm gluten and falls well below the 20 ppm cutoff for gluten free certification. Their testing found no detectable traces of gluten.

– Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), a leader in gluten free certification, lists Panera steel cut oatmeal as approved for their Gluten Free Food Services certification program. Facilities must follow protocols to avoid cross-contact and undergo inspections.

– Find Me Gluten Free, a top website for reviews of gluten free menu items, deems Panera’s oatmeal as gluten free based on their research. They have specific notes on precautions each location takes to prevent cross-contact.

– VeryWell Fit – a trusted resource on special diets – lists Panera steel cut oatmeal as a safe gluten free choice based on both the gluten free oat supply chain and precautions taken within restaurant locations.

These leading gluten free resources corroborate Panera’s own claims and suggest a low risk of gluten exposure from their oatmeal.

What Are Panera’s Allergen Policies?

On their website and menus, Panera Bread discloses allergen information and notes their employees are trained on food allergies and precautions.

Some highlights of their allergen policies include:

– Menu items shown to be made without specific allergens like gluten are produced with protocols to avoid cross-contact.

– Ingredients are sourced to be free of specific allergens through the supply chain.

– Whenever menu items contain one of the major allergens, it must be printed on menus and menu boards.

– Employees must change gloves after handling any allergen-containing ingredients.

– Gluten free orders show up as a sticker or written message on the order so kitchen employees handle them properly.

– Allergen and nutrition information can be accessed on their website or by contacting Panera’s consumer care department.

The overall rigor of their allergen training and protocols provides reassurance of their commitment to allergen avoidance. But ultimately kitchen mistakes can happen, so nothing is ever guaranteed.

Tips for Safe Eating

Those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should still take precautions when ordering from Panera, even if a menu item appears gluten free. Some tips include:

– State you have a gluten allergy when ordering. This activates more diligent prep protocols.

– Request that gloves be changed and clean tools be used to prepare your order.

– Ask if gluten free items can be prepared before others if the kitchen space is tight.

– Inquire about how and where gluten free foods are stored.

– Avoid busy high turnover times which increase risks of slip-ups.

– Check that your order comes out labeled as gluten free or with the correct markings.

Being proactive and asking questions when ordering can bring peace of mind. If employees seem unsure in answering questions about allergen procedures, it may be safest to dine elsewhere.

Does Panera Bread Offer Gluten Free Menu Items Beyond Oatmeal?

For those following a gluten free diet, it’s helpful to know what other menu items you can enjoy at Panera in addition to their oatmeal.

Some examples of items marked gluten free on their menu include:

– Salads with gluten free dressing options
– Broths including vegetarian garden veggie and chicken noodle
– Chili such as their classic chicken chili
– Sandwiches that can be made on gluten free bread
– Baked goods like bagels and muffins made with gluten free flours and grains

There are also many customization options to remove croutons, swap out bread, or exchange dressings and add-ins to create gluten free versions of other entrees.

Their allergen menu makes it easy to see gluten free ingredients and options. And you can always ask to confirm how individual menu items could be modified to be gluten free.

What About Potential Cross-Contact of Other Items?

Similar to the oatmeal concern, even if ingredients of another menu item appear gluten free, cross-contact in shared facilities is possible.

Their allergen menu speaks to ingredients only and doesn’t account for potential contact issues. Some areas particularly high risk for traces of gluten include:

– Sandwich breads warming in shared toaster ovens
– Salads prepared in shared areas with croutons present
– Soups ladled from shared kettles that contain gluten-heavy ingredients
– Shared fryers for french fries and other sides
– Baked goods with airborne gluten from on-site ovens

Employees are trained to follow protocols to reduce contact between foods. But human error occurs. So if you are highly sensitive, it’s safest to stick to items made solely with certified gluten free ingredients. Cross-contact of items prepared from scratch in-house poses the highest risk.

Should You Trust Panera Bread for Gluten Free Dining?

When weighing all the evidence and resources, Panera Bread appears to take meaningful steps to offer gluten free options for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

For their steel cut oatmeal specifically, the gluten free supply chain, isolated processing, and restaurant precautions suggest very minimal risk of gluten exposure. Customers seem to agree based on rave reviews of their oatmeal among the gluten free community.

Other naturally gluten free menu items are likely trustworthy. But additional due diligence is needed when it comes to made in-house items involving complex recipes and shared equipment. Cross-contact can never be fully ruled out in common kitchen environments.

Being upfront with employees about your needs as a gluten free customer is important. Panera seems to have thorough training and protocols in place to accommodate customers avoiding gluten. But human error involving shared equipment or ingredients always exists. So nothing can ever be guaranteed fully gluten free except foods prepared at home.

Overall Panera Bread is a decent option for gluten free diners. Their oatmeal stands out as a go-to breakfast choice with minimal concerns. Beyond that, examine menu choices closely, ask questions, and use your best judgment trusting the training and procedures are being properly followed by employees.

The Bottom Line

So is Panera Bread steel cut oatmeal gluten free? Based on an evaluation of their gluten free oat supply chain, isolated processing methods, restaurant protocols, community reviews, certifications and inclusion in gluten free meal programs, Panera’s oatmeal appears to live up to its gluten free claims. For those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity seeking a quick, tasty GF breakfast, Panera’s oatmeal is likely a safe menu choice that also provides some peace of mind. But as with any restaurant prep, human errors can occur. So weigh your own sensitivity and comfort level. Overall Panera Bread does seem to be one of the better positioned chains when it comes to food prep protocols that accommodate gluten free diets. Their oatmeal stands out as a fairly low-risk gluten free option.

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