Your oats are probably not gluten free, unless you’re eating purity protocol oats. It may seem like a silly question with an obvious answer, but the topic is actually a pretty tricky one.
Are oats a naturally gluten free grain? Yes. HOWEVER, cross contamination is a HUGE problem with oats, and it starts when you plant the seed.
Cross contamination can occur while growing, when harvested, when stored, during transportation, and during processing.
Oats are often grown on the same field, in the same general area, or in rotation with wheat, barley, and rye. So it’s likely there will be stray wheat, barley, and rye growing with the oats.
It’s also very common for the same equipment and facilities to be used for both oat and gluten-containing grains with regard to harvesting, storage, transportation, and processing.
IF OATS ARE LABELED GLUTEN FREE, AREN’T THEY TESTED?
The FDA does not require manufacturers to test for the presence of gluten in their starting ingredients or finished foods that are labeled gluten-free–so you can’t assume your food has been tested for gluten unless it’s certified gluten free.
To compound the problem, not all celiacs require 20 ppm to have an autoimmune response and damage their gut. Some celiacs react at much lower trace amounts.
It’s also important to note that it’s not terribly uncommon for foods to be labeled gluten free but test above 20 ppm. They’re technically “misbranded” when that’s the case, but it’s very hard to get the FDA to take action against those companies.
Part of the reason for this is that we celiacs rely on adverse symptoms to let us know if we’ve been exposed to gluten. That’s not sufficient “evidence” for a company to take action as it can’t be proven and therefore may not be reliable.
Although companies that have taken action to fix gluten-filled but gluten-free-labeled foods, have mostly done so due to public outcry (lots of people getting sick and being very vocal about it).
CHEERIOS – A GOOD EXAMPLE OF A BAD PROCESS
A great example of this is Cheerios. After an embarrassing recall in 2015, consumers continue to report problems with General Mills’ gluten-free cereals. There’s a great BuzzFeed article on it here.
When General Mills (who owns Cheerios) tests its food, it uses a composite score. As an example (and I’m making the numbers up), they test 10 boxes of Cheerios and average the results.
If 9 of the boxes of Cheerios contain 3 ppm and 1 box contains 70 ppm, the average for all the boxes is 9.7 ppm, and they pass their internal inspection—all the boxes were gluten free, yay! Actually, huge BOOOO!
I’m sure you can see how that’s not a very effective screening process, especially if you have celiac disease and get the box with 70 ppm.
And it’s quite common for contamination to be localized to specific portions of oats, rather than being distributed evenly throughout the whole batch.
MECHANICALLY / OPTICALLY SORTED OATS
Up until recently, the only safe way for celiacs to get gluten free oats was to purchase oats harvested and processed under a purity protocol that guaranteed they weren’t cross contaminated.
But then large companies wanted a piece of the gluten free pie. The gluten free food industry is growing extremely fast and there is crazy money to be made.
So all of these huge companies (like General Mills) came up with gluten free products and were ready to mass produce gluten free food.
Suddenly there was way more demand for gluten free oats than could be supplied by purity protocol oat farmers.
So these large companies decided the solution was to leverage traditionally grown oats, but make them gluten free (which is also much cheaper than purchasing purity protocol oats).
Mechanical or optical sorting works by putting regular oats into a machine that segregates them by color, length, and density. Once that process is complete, the oats are considered gluten free.
Now, I’m not saying we don’t have really impressive technology these days, but wheat, barley, and oats are pretty similar in shape, size, and color…and these mills are processing 2,500-5,000 pounds of oats every hour.
There has to be a margin of error.
WHAT’S THE PERCENTAGE OF ERROR?
GF Harvest, a company that grows oats under the purity protocol, cites the following on their website:
“At the 2015 American Association of Cereal Chemists International (AACCI) conference, one manufacturer presenting mentioned they used mechanical sorted commodity oats in their “gluten free” oat products. They stated they pull 12-24 samples out of each batch and average 10% of their samples testing over 20 parts per million (ppm).”
So it’s pretty standard for gluten to be present in not only regularly processed oats, but oats labeled “gluten free.”
It’s no wonder “gluten free” Cheerios are still making lots of people sick, especially when they only average their batch test results.
I will say that Quaker does claim to have a much more stringent internal screening process than General Mills, though it still relies on mechanical sorting.
WHAT ARE PURITY PROTOCOL OATS?
Purity protocol is a “farm-to-plate” process for making sure oats are gluten free. This includes everything from ensuring seed purity prior to the crop being planted, through all phases, to the final step of manufacturing.
An example of what GF Harvest has done historically is the following:
- Planting pure seed stock with pre-planting field history audits
- All equipment inspected and approved for gluten-free production
- Each field inspected prior to harvest by the company and a third party
- Harvested seed only stored in dedicated gluten-free grain storage
- Processed in a dedicated and certified gluten-free oat mill
- Packaged on a dedicated and certified gluten-free packaging line
- Third party audits showing the final product is certified gluten-free
Up until 2017, however, no standardization existed. In 2017 the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), in collaboration with other leaders in the industry, published both a definition and requirements for operating under a purity protocol. This allows for auditing and is good for consumer confidence.
CERTIFIED GLUTEN FREE OATS
Just because oats are certified gluten free does not mean they are purity protocol oats. In fact, it’s extremely hard for you to find out if oats in a given product were grown under a purity protocol or simply sorted.
If the food you are eating is certified gluten free, you can be confident that the final food item (let’s say it’s a granola bar), comes in under the parts per million threshold verified by that certification.
But if the product is only labeled gluten free, beware!
If you have problems with purity protocol oats, you may be one of a small percentage of celiacs who simply respond adversely to oats.
Oats contain a protein similar to gluten called avenin. Though research is not robust in this area, some studies indicate avenin stimulates an immune response similar to what is seen from gluten in celiac patients.
WHERE CAN I BUY PURITY PROTOCOL OATS?
Gluten Free Watchdog has a great list here.
For people with celiac disease, eating gluten free is our only available medical treatment. It’s not simply a diet we’re choosing or some fad. It’s the only way we are able to preserve our health.
I’m all for innovation—capitalism has paved the way for some amazing inventions (yay smartphones!). But it’s frustrating when it appears that companies are cutting corners for the sake of a buck, and risking the health of the demographic they’re claiming to serve.
Compound this with the fact that many celiacs and gluten intolerant individuals don’t even know to ask if there’s a difference, and it feels…disingenuous (at best).
Maybe mechanical sorting will pave they way for a more reliable technology in the future, but for now, I’ll be sticking with purity protocol oats, and only certified gluten free foods if oats are in the product.