There’s a lot of confusion around this topic. For years, we have been told that oats are not gluten-free and that wheat gluten intolerant people and coeliacs should avoid oats completely. In Australia there are no ‘gluten-free’ oats, however in other countries there are and some recipes call for ‘gluten-free’ oats. Why is this? While it is true that oats do contain gluten, it’s a different type of gluten to the other gluten-containing grains. Let me explain.
What type of gluten is in oats then?
Gluten represents a specific number of proteins found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye, oats, and triticale. Spelt is an “heirloom” variety of wheat and should be considered as “wheat” for the purpose of this article. The types of proteins that make up gluten is different from grain to grain. For example, the “gluten” protein in wheat is Gliadin, in barley it’s Hordein, in Rye it’s Secalin, in Triticale (a wheat-rye hybrid) it is both Secalin and Gliadin. In oats, the gluten protein is called Avenin also known as ‘Oat Gluten’.
Who can tolerate ‘Oat Gluten’?
The structure of Avenin in oats is a bit different from the other gluten proteins. Therefore, some people who are intolerant to Gliadin may be able to tolerate the Avenin in oats. According to Coeliac Australia, approximately 20% or one in five gluten sensitive people cannot tolerate Avenin in oats, the same as they react to the other types of gluten. This means the other four out of five gluten sensitive people may be able to tolerate Avenin in oats. But this comes with a warning. Anyone who has an allergy or intolerance to wheat, rye or barley should also be aware of this.
Before buying oats, it’s important to know about cross-contamination. Contamination can happen in the field, when farmers rotate their oat crops with other crops like wheat and barley. Contamination can happen during harvesting when farmers use the same machinery and equipment like silos to store the grain in that have been previously used to store other gluten-containing grains like wheat. It can also happen during processing in the factory even if no contamination happened on the farm.
I am wheat intolerant and I react and get dry, inflamed eyes in the days after eating oats if they are contaminated with wheat. Oats can be certified as ‘wheat-free’ or ‘gluten-free’ when farmers take great care as well as strict processes in transport and the factory to avoid contamination with wheat or other gluten grains.
Where can you buy gluten-free oats?
Currently in Australia, oats are not allowed to be labelled as gluten-free even if they have not been contaminated because of the small minority of people who cannot tolerate oat gluten. This is to protect the estimated 20% of people from getting sick from Avenin. However, it’s interesting that most other countries around the world allow the labelling of ‘gluten-free’ on oats that have not been contaminated. That is why you may see recipes online with gluten-free oats. So in Australia, gluten-free oats can be purchased online and imported brands can be found in some health stores.
Technically, no oats can be truly “gluten-free”, as they contain Avenin but since ‘oat gluten’ is different, some gluten sensitive people may be able to tolerate it. Gluten-free oats are uncontaminated so they are great for anyone who is intolerant to wheat, rye or barley. There is currently no known test to see if you can tolerate oats. If you are a coeliac, always consult your doctor about whether gluten-free oats are safe for you.