Oats are a magical grain. You can eat them raw, cooked, or as a topping or even use them in baking. But one thing we aren’t quite sure about is whether oats are gluten-free.
It’s actually a great debate: While the answer is technically “yes,” gluten contamination is still a problem. Here’s what we know.
So, what is gluten? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It gives breads and pastas that elastic and chewy texture we love. (Hello, pizza dough. 🤤)
Most people can eat gluten without any problem, but it can cause some major digestive problems for people with gluten intolerance, sensitivity, or allergies. This is because its amino acid structure can obstruct digestive enzymes in your gut. (Ouch — get the kombucha ready.)
Peeps with celiac disease need to avoid gluten at👏 all👏 costs.👏 Unlike an intolerance or allergy, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which your immune system attacks your body in response to eating gluten.
Say you have celiac disease and you eat some gluten-filled bread. Your body essentially attacks itself in defense, specifically by damaging your small intestine. This makes your intestine less able to take in nutrients, causes a bunch of digestive side effects, and increases your risk of intestinal cancer.
A gluten-free diet is best for those with celiac or an intolerance. If you think gluten upsets your body, try to add gluten-free options to your diet to see if there’s a change. Trust us: Gluten-free options are just as delish.
Oats are naturally gluten-free and safe for most people who have gluten intolerances or celiac disease. But if the oats are processed in the same facility as wheat, barley, or rye, slight contamination with gluten is possible (dang it!).
A 2013 study suggests most people with a wheat allergy or celiac disease can eat 50 to 100 grams (that’s 2 to 3.5 ounces, or a little less than 1/2 cup) of pure oats per day without any harmful effects.
And research from 2014 suggests that adding oats to a gluten-free diet can be beneficial and contribute to intestinal healing.
Again, technically yes, but contamination happens.
Rolled oats go through a steaming and flattening process. They’re softer in texture than steel-cut oats and have been partially cooked. Steel-cut oats are chopped using large steel blades and have a coarser, chewier texture. They have a lower glycemic index than rolled oats and are full of fiber.
Steel-cut oats are most commonly made in the same facilities as wheat products, so they’re more likely to have cross-contamination.
That dang oat-ruining cross-contamination can happen in different ways.
First off, you can blame farming. Oats are often grown with other crops that may contain gluten. Farmers also typically use the same equipment on nearby crops. Even the sowing seeds may have a slight trace of gluten from the nearby wheat, barley, or rye (why, though?).
But there is some good news: Over the past few years, manufacturers have become more mindful of growing and processing gluten-free oats (rejoice!).
Some manufacturers have gotten their sh*t together and designated gluten-free fields and started cleaning their equipment after working with gluten.
The FDA allows oats processed this way to be labeled “gluten-free” as long as they contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
Yes, gluten-free oats can still contain a teeny-tiny amount of gluten if they’re somehow contaminated along the way. And just 20 ppm of gluten can be enough to cause a reaction in some people with celiac disease.
A 2008 study found that 109 out of 134 “pure, uncontaminated” oat-containing products had traces of gluten in them.
But things appear to be getting better in the United States since the FDA stepped in. A 2014 study of gluten-free food labels in the United States found that 95 percent of the tested products had less than 20 ppm of gluten.
Read those labels!
If your diet is strictly gluten-free, make sure you’re reading labels on oats and foods that contain them (even though oats are naturally gluten-free).
Look for the labels that actually say “gluten-free” and avoid products that say “processed in a facility that also processes wheat.”
In most cases, the labels are correct and you should be able to enjoy gluten-free oatmeal if you have celiac disease or an intolerance.
Some people may also have issues with another protein in oats called avenin.
Avenin has a similar amino acid structure to gluten, which means it can cause similar problems, but this is super rare. Most gluten-sensitive people (or even people with celiac disease) don’t have a reaction to avenin at all and can still eat plenty of oats.
In a 2015 study, researchers found that about 8 percent of participants with celiac disease had some response to eating a large portion (100 grams) of oats. They concluded that 100 grams of oats per day wasn’t enough to cause a reaction and that the oats were totally safe to eat.
Now here comes the good stuff. Oats have the benefits your gluten-free (or non-gluten-free) heart desires. (Literally, they have heart benefits.)
Oats are a great source of B vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, iron, selenium, manganese, and zinc.
The fiber in oats is also great for your heart and can help reduce the risk of heart disease, prevent diabetes, and lower blood sugar levels.
Oats generally are a good source of nutrients that you need when eating a gluten-free diet. To collect the most nutrients from oats, opt for unprocessed oats and make your own oatmeal rather than buying premade options with tons of sugar.
Oats are our friends and food. Here are two easy ways to eat gluten-free rolled and steel-cut oats:
Rolled oats oatmeal
Bring 1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats and 1 cup water to a boil. Let it simmer for 5 minutes.
Top off the oatmeal with any of these delicious options:
- 1 banana
- 1 tablespoon flaxseed
Raw steel-cut overnight oats
- 1/2 cup blueberries
- 1/3–1/2 cup almond milk
- 1/3 cup steel-cut oats
- 1 1/2 teaspoons chia seeds
- 1 1/2 teaspoons flaxseed
Combine all ingredients in a bowl or jar and let sit overnight.
Adding oats to your gluten-free diet can be beneficial to your health. If you have celiac disease or a similar condition, be sure to carefully read food labels and do your research on different brands of gluten-free oats. Some gluten-free oats may still have traces of gluten.
Pure oats and gluten-free oats can be found at just about any grocery store, co-op, or online market. Stock up now and enjoy the oat livin’.