There’s a lot of confusion around oats and whether or not labelling them as gluten free is justifiable. So let’s take a look at what gluten actually is!

Gluten is used to describe a prolamin protein fraction that affects those with coeliac disease. This gluten fraction is called gliadin in wheat, hordein in barley, secalin in rye and avenin in oats.

The term “gluten free oats” is sometimes assigned to oats that have been grown and processed without coming into any contact with wheat, barley or rye (which contain gliadin, hordein and secalin).

However, current laboratory tests can only test for the first three of those, as avenin is a slightly different form of protein. Oats naturally contain avenin and therefore are not truly gluten free. Even tiny traces of gluten can cause symptoms in those with coeliac disease.

What is Coeliac Disease?

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition characterised by gastrointestinal symptoms including bloating, vomiting, gas, diarrhoea, constipation, unintentional weight loss and anaemia.

When people with coeliac disease eat foods containing gluten, their body makes antibodies that attack gluten, causing damage to the small intestine. This damage and inflammation of the small intestine causes all of the very unpleasant symptoms listed earlier.

Avoiding all forms of gluten is absolutely necessary for people with coeliac disease. Any damage to the small intestines means the body cannot absorb vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Thankfully, coeliac disease can be diagnosed with a simple blood test, although you must not have been following a gluten-free diet for at least six weeks beforehand in order to get accurate results. Currently, its only treatment is to follow a gluten free diet for a person’s entire lifetime.

Although even pure, uncontaminated oats can trigger symptoms in some, the avenins found in wheat free oats are tolerated by majority of those with coeliac disease.

Research by Dr. Robert Anderson suggested that only one in five people with coeliac disease reacted to uncontaminated oats. Despite this, the advice from both Dr. Anderson and Coeliac New Zealand is that people with coeliac disease should not consume oats, as it is impossible to know who is going to have a reaction until it happens or they have been tested and given the all clear.

Currently, the only way to find out whether or not someone with coeliac disease can consume oats is to undergo a gastroscopy/biopsy.

However, there are cases where it may be worthwhile for someone with coeliac disease to experiment with certified wheat free oats or undergo gastroscopy/biopsy – under the guidance of a GP or a registered dietitian, of course. One such case is if they have a condition like type 1 diabetes, where oats may be beneficial in stabilising blood sugar levels.

People with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (those with gluten sensitivity who have tested negative for coeliac disease) may experience similar symptoms to those with coeliac disease, while lacking the same antibodies and intestinal permeability that the disease creates. Therefore, while someone with gluten sensitivity may feel better on a gluten-free diet, the chances that oats will cause a problem are incredibly slim.

Legally speaking, oats are not gluten free

You may have noticed that while they are spoken of quite often, oats labelled as ‘certified gluten free’ are actually not available.

Under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, oats and products containing them, are not permitted to be labelled as gluten free due to the reasons outlined above.

For this same reason, an oat-containing product labelled “gluten free” overseas may be labelled “wheat free", despite being exactly the same product. This is why there has been confusion around oats and ‘gluten free’ labelling. The fact is, they are not.

Conclusively, oats are not part of a gluten free diet, however some people may be able to enjoy them in small amounts.