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.
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.
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?
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.
Written by Sheridan Kennedy on September 30, 2014