So, this is a blog post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while, mostly because quite often I come across an article, post on social media, or comment from a patient regarding how it is ok to eat oats when you are following a gluten-free diet. This morning I came across an article written by a reasonably well-known nutrition authority, who stated that gluten was found in ‘some’ oats – hmmmm, I thought to myself.
So, in order to clear up a bit of confusion, I decided it was high time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and outline why, if you feel that you don’t tolerate gluten-containing grains well, it can be a good idea to stay away from oats too.
First of all, just what is gluten? And what does it mean to be gluten-intolerant?
Gluten is a protein that is found in certain grains – the most well-known of which are wheat, rye, barley and oats, as well as less common ‘older’ forms of wheat such as spelt, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). In each different plant, the type of gluten varies, and because of this it is called by a different name. For instance, the gluten in wheat is called gliadin, and the gluten in oats is called avenin.
The reason that gluten can be problematic for various individuals is that we have trouble breaking it down within the digestive system. In some people, a genetic predisposition and various triggering factors cause their immune system to become involved, and the lining of the digestive system gets quite badly damaged. As a result, these individuals can’t tolerate even small amounts of any food that contains gluten, and this is called Coeliac Disease. The prevailing school of thought used to be that if you weren’t diagnosed with full-blown coeliac disease then gluten was fine for you to eat. However, scientific research is beginning to recognise that in fact you can be gluten-intolerant, despite coeliac disease being ruled out, and that you can experience real, and often quite distressing symptoms after eating gluten. I’m glad to see this is finally becoming a ‘real’ issue, as many people instinctively know that they feel better when they stay away from, or at least limit their intake of, gluten.
I won’t go into too much detail here about the symptoms of gluten intolerance (that’s a topic for another post, and this one is meant to be about oats!) but suffice it to say that I always question my patients on their intake of wheat and other gluten-containing grains if they turn up in my clinic with any of the following:
- Digestive discomfort/irritable bowel - bloating, cramping, constipation and/or diarrhoea
- Skin conditions such as eczema
- Autoimmune conditions such as Hashimotos Disease (which affects the thyroid gland), or rheumatoid arthritis
- Behavioural disorders in children
So, where exactly do oats fit in, and why the confusion over whether they contain gluten or not?
As mentioned earlier, gluten IS found in oats, but because in each gluten-containing grain the gluten structure is slightly different (remember the different names I mentioned?), the tolerance level can vary, and it can also vary from individual to individual. Wheat usually causes the most issues (possibly because it is found in such large quantities throughout our typical Western diet), but oats can sometimes be easier to digest. In fact, it has been estimated that up to 4 out of 5 gluten-intolerant individuals can usually tolerate the gluten in oats. However, by applying simple mathematics to this equation, this obviously means that 1 in 5 people that will not do well on oats.
Where the confusion really occurs, is in the difference between our labelling laws here in Australia, compared to acceptable labelling laws overseas. In the USA and Europe, food labelling laws allow for oats to be labelled ‘gluten-free’. I can’t help but think of that poor 1-in-5 person who must have to be very careful to find non-oat products! However, our coeliac organisation (Coeliac Australia) deems that because some people can still react to oats, this requires them to be labelled as a gluten-containing grain. You can read their information about why this is necessary, in their position statement on oats.
So, basically – if you are sourcing recipes from overseas (let’s face it, the ‘net is a great place to find recipes!), and you are needing to avoid eating gluten, then you need to keep in mind that many ‘gluten-free’ recipes will use oats, and therefore (strictly speaking) won’t be gluten-free. This also applies to oats that have been imported – occasionally you will see packets of oats that are labelled ‘uncontaminated’ – this simply means that they have been processed in a facility that doesn’t process wheat, so essentially the label should really read ‘uncontaminated by wheat gluten’. It is important to remember that these will still contain their own gluten – avenin – which remains in the oat itself.