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What’s the deal with oats?

People are often asking me about oats and their gluten-free and wheat-free status. Here’s what I know:

Oats themselves are gluten-free. There was a question for a while about whether pure oats could cause damage to the gut, but that seems to have been put to rest with a study on oats published in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology. This study concluded: “Long-term use of oats included in the gluten-free diets of patients with coeliac disease does not stimulate an immunological response locally in the mucosa of the small intestine.”

So, are oats safe for people with wheat allergy or gluten intolerance or celiac disease? It depends on where the oats come from. The problems lies in the fact that most oats can become contaminated with wheat during transport and processing. According to a study on oats and contamination published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and summarized on celiac.com, three brands of rolled or steel-cut oats (Quaker, Country Choice, and McCann’s) were tested for gluten contamination. All of them had at least one container of oats that tested above the safe gluten limit as defined by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international organization that creates gluten-free standards.

I have many times heard that McCann’s Irish Oats are gluten-free, but according to this study, they are as susceptible to cross-contamination with wheat as any other brand. And, unfortunately, almost every commercial product made with oats, like granola bars, are using possibly-contaminated oats.

Here are the statements on the websites of these 3 companies regarding their gluten-free status:

McCann’s Irish Oats
Q. Are McCann’s Oat products gluten free?
A. All McCann’s oat products are processed in a dedicated oatmeal mill that handles only oatmeal. In the supply chain between farm and mill, there is a possible cross contamination with other grains, such as wheat and barley but we reckon that the level of non-oat grains to be less than 0.05%. Cleaning equipment within the milling process would remove the vast majority of these grains along with other elements such as stones, straw etc. But we cannot guarantee that McCann’s oats are totally gluten free and we recommend that consumers use their own judgement as to whether they wish to use our oatmeal or not. Many celiacs can tolerate our oatmeal products without any adverse effect but they may not suit those who are particularly sensitive.

Quaker Oats
Q. Do oats contain gluten?
A. Because oats are grown, stored, transported in bulk, they may contain trace amounts of wheat, rye and barley. USDA grain standards allow a certain percentage of other grains to be present in the oats. Therefore, gluten may be found in oats, even if very small amounts of these other grains are present.

Country Choice Oats
Q. Are your products wheat-free?
A. Some of our products do not contain wheat. However, all of our products are processed on shared equipment that uses wheat. Please read the ingredient list carefully before purchasing.

So, you are thinking, get to the point! Can we eat oats or not??

Yes, you can eat uncontaminated oats! There are two companies that I know of that are producing guaranteed gluten-free oats. One is Gluten Free Oats and the other is Gifts of Nature. I received a bag of oats as a present from my sister last year (that sounds kind of funny, but I was thrilled!) – I have since eaten oatmeal for breakfast and made oatmeal cookies and granola bars. (update 2/25/08: 2 more companies selling gluten-free oats are Creamhill Estates and Bob’s Red Mill).

There is also a company in Canada that is making granola bars, granola clusters and trail mix from uncontaminated oats – it is called Nonuttin’ Foods.

So, there you have it. That’s the deal with oats.

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