Can oats really be gluten-free? | Kialla Pure Foods

Is there such a thing as gluten-free oats?

September 30, 2014

We often get questions from customers asking if our oats are gluten-free. And we have to answer that they aren’t.
And yet I see oats that claim to be gluten-free.

So how is it possible for some oats to be gluten-free and others not to be?

Being the detective-type I decided to do some investigating. And I found conflicting information, because as you might expect, when there’s confusion on the supermarket shelves, there’s also confusion behind the scenes.

All grains contain proteins, and the proteins in wheat, barley and rye are generally called glutens. While you won’t hear the name mentioned as often as ‘gluten’, if at all, the specific proteins in oats are called avenins.

If you google ‘do oats contain gluten?’ and find yourself on The University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, you’ll learn that avenins are not glutens. Many blogs will quote this or a related source.

However, this is not actually the correct picture. The Coeliac Australia website goes into a little more detail in regards to some technical terminology and testing processes. And this reveals a different picture of oats.

As they explain it, the term ‘gluten’ is generally used to describe a prolamin protein fraction that is associated with coeliac disease. This prolamin protein occurs in wheat, barley, rye and oats.

However in each of the grains the protein goes by different names: gliadin in wheat, hordein in in barley, secalin in rye, and avenin in oats. So, in fact, all oats naturally contain the prolamin protein, generally known as gluten, albeit in a slightly different form.

 

We use rolled oats from Finland in our Organic Muesli

Combine our rolled oats with dried fruit and seeds to make your own muesli.

 

Why then can reputable sites make a clear statement that oats ‘don’t contain gluten’?

It seems it comes down to a technicality, both in terminology and in testing.

When detecting the presence of gluten in food, laboratories use a particular testing process. Interestingly, the test is not actually able to measure avenin glutens because they have a slightly different amino acid combination.

Consequently, the response to this testing anomaly is different in the USA and in Australia. The FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) have set a standard that makes it impossible to claim that Australian grown or processed oats are gluten-free. Technically they are absolutely correct.

However, standards in the USA are more flexible. It is clearly acceptable to claim that oats are gluten free, since a reputable institution like the University of Chicago can state emphatically that oats ‘don’t contain gluten, but rather proteins called avenins that are non-toxic and tolerated by most celiacs.’

And it is this last point that enables the US (and European) standards where farmers and millers can claim their oats are gluten-free.

 

perfect porridge

Even if you have coeliac disease you may still be able to enjoy a bowl of porridge.

 

Studies over the past 15 years show that oats are generally safe for those who have coeliac disease.

But even here it seems to be a case of different interpretations.

It’s either ‘a large body of scientific evidence’, according to the Uni of Chicago’s Celiac Center, or ‘limited clinical studies’ according to Coeliac Australia. And these studies’ claims of reaction rates to the avenin gluten protein apparently vary from ‘less than 1%’ (Uni of Chicago) to 20% (Coeliac Australia). Perhaps depending on which study you read!

While the Uni of Chicago site is happy to declare oats can be freely consumed by coeliacs, it adds the caveat that the oats need to be guaranteed uncontaminated by wheat, rye or barley. Either when growing in the field or when processed at the mill. This means that oats that are grown alongside crops with the other gluten proteins cannot claim to be gluten-free.

I suspect that such a proviso is simply covering for the potential of gluten-containing oats to impact coeliacs, while still allowing gluten-free claims.

It is noteworthy that there is no need for any grains which really are gluten free (chickpeas, linseed, sorghum, millet etc) and which may be grown around wheat, barley, rye etc, to meet any anti-contamination requirements either in Australia or globally.

One thing that emerges very clearly: standards set by food authorities, tests conducted by labs, and scientific studies are not as cut and dried as we are often led to believe. You can see that, obviously, there are  as many shades of grey as food experts are able to introduce.

A variance between 1% and 20% is enormous, and generally would be considered inconclusive if found within a single study. Even in multiple studies it would confuse the averaging of the stats. Short of going into all the literature on gluten in oats studies for myself, I just have to accept that there’s a wide range of results.

Also, as we see with the term ‘gluten’, terminology can be tweaked and simplified to suit information and marketing imperatives.

The important question is: what constitutes a gluten-free product?

Recent regulations set by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the US, decided that to make a claim of gluten-free in the US, a product must test at less than 20 ppm (parts per million). The FDA site says that ‘this is the lowest level that can be consistently detected in foods using valid scientific analytical tools’.

The science begs to differ in Australia where the FSANZ gluten-free test can currently measure levels as low as 3ppm (parts per million).

So, strictly speaking, any ‘gluten-free’ product manufactured in Australia must comply with this 3ppm standard. Gluten-free means exactly that: ‘non-detectable’.

But the important question remains – if imported gluten-free product was only required to meet the 20ppm standard in their own country, does FSANZ test this product to Australian standards so that, for example, USA oats can claim to be ‘gluten-free’ in Australia?  Or does FSANZ rely on the company themselves to do their own testing to meet 3ppm requirements? And, how does this work if the country-of-origin regulations, as for the FDA in the USA, consider that currently valid scientific method can only test to 20ppm?

 

sewing the calicos

Sewing the 5kg calico bags of oats at Kialla’s mill.

5kg calico bags of oats

Our 5kg calico bags of oats ready to dispatch to our retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How do we deal with non gluten grains at Kialla?

You may be aware that we mill a variety of inherently gluten free grains such as chickpeas (besan flour), soy bean, millet, buckwheat and sorghum flours. We take the utmost care to keep these grains free of gluten through having dedicated non-gluten milling lines and a specific ‘gluten free’ clean down procedure.

We also run tests that are accurate to 10 parts per million, which keeps our level of gluten contamination to less than 20 parts per million. As you can see this complies with the International Codex. However, because we also mill wheat flour onsite, it is extremely difficult to meet the FSANZ standard of 3ppm.

For these reasons, we don’t make any ‘gluten-free’ claims for our non gluten grains. Or for our oats. You may have seen our Non Gluten Grains Flour which is made from buckwheat, maize, quinoa and sorghum. All of these are free of gluten however, for the reasons explained above, we can’t call this ‘Gluten-Free Flour’.

Back to the original question: is there such a thing as gluten-free oats?

In short, no.

In summary however:

  • US & European oats can claim to be gluten-free due to the inability of gluten tests to measure the avenin gluten fraction.
  • However, to claim to be gluten-free according to these countries’ standards, there is a further requirement that oats must not be grown beside fields of wheat, barley, and rye. This is a piece of pedantry since oats inherently have gluten proteins anyway.
  • Oats may be a safe food for those with gluten sensitivity or coeliac disease, due to the structure and behaviour of the avenin protein. This has been established via studies that suggest coeliacs do not react to oats in the way they react to other gluten products. However as mentioned earlier in this article, these studies show wide variations.

 

If you have coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity, and you’re eating oats without any digestive issues, then it would seem that you don’t have to worry about the avenin protein.

However, while many coeliacs don’t react to oats, It is worth noting that Coeliac Australia states the following:

‘It has been recommended by leading researchers and gastroenterologists that oats should not be 
included within the gluten free diet. It is recommended that should an individual wish to consume oats as part of the gluten free diet, a biopsy prior to and 3 months during regular oat consumption be done to determine its safety on the individual.’

The moral of the tale? Next time you see a bag of ‘gluten-free’ oats, don’t believe it!

And if you want to know the full story of our organic rolled oats, read about our visit to Finland.

Tags:

Categories: Blog, Farm 2 Plate, gluten, oats

Written by Sheridan Kennedy on September 30, 2014

About Sheridan Kennedy

One of my defining attributes is my sweet tooth so I love to bake the occasional cake. Though I can't claim to be a great cook! And while I now live in the city, growing up on a sheep and cattle station in western Queensland gave me a lifelong love of the country, and respect for those working on the land. Having a PhD also means I'm a bit obsessed with research...

22 responses to “Is there such a thing as gluten-free oats?”

  1. A few days back i read an article which titled “Discover the Health Benefits of Gluten-free Teff Seed “. After reading this article now I know that there is no such product called “gluten- free”. One thing which surprise me in that just because of not having the insight knowledge we are deceived every day! The most important lesson that i learned from this article is :
    “Next time you see a bag of ‘gluten-free’ oats, don’t believe it!”

    Thanks for the informative and thoughtful article.

    Flynn Rodgers

    • Hi Flynn. Teff is a relative of sorghum and millet, both of which are actually gluten-free grains. It’s simply that oats actually do contain a form of gluten. It is possible to find non-gluten grains and we do test our non-gluten grains as they are processed and packed to ensure they aren’t contaminated with gluten. However we aren’t able to ensure a strict gluten-free <3ppm as required by FSANZ.

  2. Anne says:

    Hi, thank you for your very interesting article on gluten free oats. We actually look for wheat free oats when buying. Those that have not been grown in a field where wheat has been grown or next door to a wheat/rye/barley field, because of cross contamination.

    FREEDOM used to sell them, from Ballarat region. Unfortunately they have disappeared off the shelf.
    Any suggestions please?

    Thanks
    Anne

    • Hi Anne, we now import our oats because of their high quality, and while it’s possible to get gluten-free oats in Europe following the standards discussed in the blog post (i.e. not grown near wheat, rye and barley), we cannot actually sell them in Australia as gluten-free oats, for reasons that I also go into in the blog post. Therefore, there is no point to import these ‘gluten-free’ oats. I’m not aware of any farmers growing oats to these requirements in Australia. The oat groats we buy from Aussie farmers are grown in fields near to wheat. So, I am sorry we can’t help you with this.

  3. Alice says:

    Hi Anne
    I live in the New England region of NSW and have noticed ‘gluten free oats’ on the shelves of my local health food store. I did point out to the shop assistant that no one can put GF on oats in Aus but she just went on about them not being contaminated. I’m guessing they were imported. Anyway maybe check out your health food store 🙂

    • Hi Alice
      Maybe they are imported oats from the US. Not many people are actually aware of the gluten status of oats due to the marketing of ‘gluten-free’oats. While the ‘not contaminated’ with wheat is acceptable in US and Europe, in Australia it does not -officially according to FSANZ- mean you can call them ‘gluten-free’. Otherwise we could buy ‘non-contaminated’ oats from our Finnish suppliers to sell into Australia. But because it’s not accepted under Aus labelling laws with its unltra-strict 3ppm gluten content, it’s not worth the extra expense. While they may call them ‘gluten-free’ they are not compliant with Aussie regulations. Hope this helps.

  4. Jonathan Lowe says:

    Very interesting article, I had read that Oats are Gluten free but I now understand why I have problems with Hot Oatmeal (porridge in Ireland & UK). Recently I’ve discovered that I’m Gluten intolerant and since Easter this year I have had some serious problems which seem to improved since giving up Oats. It’s interesting about Wheat, a few years ago I found I could not tolerate Weetabix or Shredded Wheat and also Commercial Bread. However, I’ve no problems with Spelt Bread or any product made with Spelt Flower.

    • brian says:

      Hi Jonathon.
      I’m not sure how you decided you were gluten intolerant but if you can tolerate spelt wheat you are not. There is gluten in spelt wheat. There is plenty of scientific evidence to show that there is no advantage to your health in going gluten free unless you have coeliac’s or dermatitis herpetiformis.

  5. Rachel says:

    Hi Sheridan – thanks for the excellent explanation. I’m a coeliac who can tolerate oats, and the only ones I found were Freedom foods, sadly no longer on the market. The oats you sell are the ones from Finland, is that correct? Even though your oats cannot be called GF in Australia, do they meet European standards for GF? Do you know if they comply with the non-contamination requirements? I would really like to eat oats again, and I think I’m prepared to take the risk with your oats. I understand it’s on my head and that you can’t take responsibility for anything that happens! thanks

    • Hi Rachel – yes our oats are from Finland but they are not officially gluten-free even by European standards. The company we buy from does sell a version of gluten free oats that meet the European standards (requiring that they are not grown – or processed – next to wheat, barley etc). Since we are unable to sell them as gluten free according to Australian standards there was no point paying the premium for this type of oats. As they discuss on the coeliac site there are some who tolerate oats. If you were to re-introduce them into your diet it may be worth doing it under the supervision of nutritionist or naturopath.

      • brian says:

        It would make sense to follow the recommendation of the coeliac society if thinking of reintroducing oats into your diet.
        That is to have a small bowel biopsy before reintroducing them (to confirm you bowel histology is normal) and one after a few months of eating them (to confirm you bowel is still normal or has become damaged again). If you are like many coeliacs, you will know pretty quickly whether you are tolerating the oats.
        From experience a naturopath, no matter how well meaning, won’t have a clue.

  6. nurul afser says:

    Hi
    I want to know that this product is 100% Gluten free? Have u any kind information to me .

  7. Dd says:

    Thanks for a great write up. So much conflicting info on oats out there.

  8. Lyn says:

    Hi Brian. As someone with Hashimoto’s I have found going gluten free as been a real help. It has also helped with more energy, less joint pain and an overall sense of wellness. As gluten contains numerous peptides perhaps spelt bread has different peptides that Jonathan can tolerate. Our bodies have an amazing way of telling when somethings not right.

  9. Janette Spring says:

    Please be aware that Quinoa can cause a terrible allergic reaction – it may be gluten-free but the outer casing contains saponins (soaps!) and if these are not washed off in production, you can be in big trouble.
    I have been diagnosed as Coeliac (through a colonoscopy) and yet suffer little adverse reaction to gluten. I still stay away from it – but I do eat oats. However, Quinoa causes an immediate violent allergic reaction.
    Please tell your customers to be careful.

    • Sheridan Kennedy says:

      Hi Janette, I guess it’s like many other foods such as many nuts which people have anaphylactic reactions too. Soy and eggs are allergens as well. In some sense anything with a protein has the potential to cause an allergic reaction in individuals, and it can be rather difficult to pinpoint which proteins this might be until medical practitioners report the reactions. Thanks for letting us know.

  10. Anthony Briggs says:

    Hello, one of the key problems with the studies is that they do not distinguish Organic and Non-organic. Non-organic has the possibility of containing Glyphosate and that causes a mimicry reaction in the immune systems of those with heightened sensitivity to Gluten. Non-Ceoliac gluten sensitivity is the fastest growing group here. Thus an explanation for the 1 vs 20 issue. You could also talk about CLA benefits too 🙂
    BTW, Fantastic products !! Well done

    • Sheridan Kennedy says:

      Thanks Anthony :). And that’s a very good point that you make re the glyphosate. Not sure how much is used on oats in Australia but considering that oats take some time to dry down in more moist climates it may be an option. Having said that I didn’t see oats listed on Monsanto’s Round-Up recommendations for dessicating crops. Of course we’re still getting glyphosate from other grains/legumes particularly if we’re eating non-organic imported products. And yes oats have many benefits so it’s definitely worth including them in our diet.

  11. I have to be honest and admit that I’ve not heard of gluten-free oats. It’s very interesting however to learn the pros and cons of what they can do for us.
    Do others agree though that their seems to be far more allergies around these days as opposed to years ago when eveyrone was just expected to get on with it?

    • Sheridan Kennedy says:

      If you’re buying Aussie oats you won’t hear gluten free oats being marketed because, as a marketing ploy, it won’t work in Australia! And yes I do think there are more allergies and food intolerances around now as opposed to years ago for a number of reasons. Some would argue it’s because of better diagnostics and awareness. Others would point to the foreign chemical burden the modern body has to endure in daily life – with everything from pesticides to drycleaning and shampoos contributing to the load our systems have to detox to prevent ‘malfunctions’. And lets not forget that in general our lives are more stressful…

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