Are Oats Gluten Free?

by Les Saidel - November, 2012

Of the five grains (wheat, rye, spelt, barley, rye and oats) wheat has the highest gluten content.

Gluten is a complex protein made up of two other proteins called gliadin and glutenin. In modern, genetically engineered wheat, the gliadin and (hence the gluten content) of wheat flour is even higher than wheat say from 100 years ago.

While wheat is definitely the highest gluten containing grain, rye, barley and spelt (in descending order of gluten content) also contain gluten - not as much as wheat mind you, but they definitely contain gluten. Of the 5 grains, oats seems to be the only exception.

The answer to the question asked in the title of the article could be amazingly simple. Botanically and chemically speaking, oats do not contain any gluten protein at all. If oats were to be grown in a sterile, laboratory environment, they would not contain any gluten whatsoever.

However reality is slightly more complex.

Most oats produced commercially are cross contaminated. Either the oats are grown in a field close (or even adjacent) to a field where one of the other 5 grains are being grown. Cross contamination often occurs either by wind/insect distribution of seeds between fields, or by something as dumb as using the same combine harvester to harvest the different crops. Furthermore, most mills that grind oats into flour also mill other grains and thus also cause cross contamination.

There are a number of companies that sell "gluten-free oats" and supposedly take precautions to prevent such cross contamination. Some of these may be on the "up and up" but many are simply unscrupulous con artists jumping on the hype bandwagon.

The second potential problem of oats as it relates to this article is that although botanically and chemically oats do not contain gluten, they contain a similar protein called avenin. Unfortunately insufficient medical research has been conducted to examine the effects of avenin on the digestive systems of Celiac sufferers. Clinical observations however seem to indicate that Celiac sufferers do not tolerate oats well.

A more pertinent question than "Are oats gluten free?" would be "What degree of gluten intolerance do you have?"

If you are a Celiac sufferer and even the minutest trace of gluten will affect you, then forget about botanical theory which states that oats have no gluten. Reality unfortunately seldom resembles theory. You would be well advised to steer clear of oats altogether as chances are high you are going to encounter either cross contamination or even if not, then you will probably react badly to the avenin protein in oats.

If you are simply gluten intolerant and not Celiac, then oats will probably have no ill effect on you.

Bottom line: If you suspect something, get yourself tested to find out if you are gluten intolerant or even Celiac. If you unfortunately are one of the above, simply diagnosing the problem is insufficient. You need to follow up and be tested regularly to detect whether your low-gluten or gluten-free diet is actually working and having the therapeutic effects that it should on your digestive system. You may still be unwittingly ingesting some foodstuff that is defeating the whole purpose of your diet.

Good health.

Les Saidel


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