“Do oats contain gluten?” My question seemed simple enough. But the results from an online search immediately proved me wrong. Oh, how naive I was! A lot of people have weighed in on this subject, going all the way up to international federal organizations.
You see, Dear Readers, my life has been blessed with an absence of allergies. When a health history form asks for substances that produce an inflammatory histamine reaction upon exposure to them, my response is “None known.”
But I grew up with kids who had special dietary needs. When they came over for lunch, my mom simply changed the menu to accommodate them (and prevent a medical melt-down) without a big fuss. Most common among my pals were food sensitivities, especially an intolerance for wheat.
Wheat, rye, bulgur, seitan, triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), and barley all contain a protein called gluten. When someone who is gluten-intolerant ingests this plant protein, bad things happen:
“[T]heir body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.”
The gastrointestinal symptoms of celiac disease include bloating, vomiting, gas, diarrhea, constipation, unintentional weight loss, and anemia (low red blood cell count).
Because the small intestine becomes damaged when a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, knowing which foods do and don’t contain gluten takes on monumental importance.
Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease that is inherited by people with a genetic predisposition. It runs in the family. People with a first-degree relative with celiac disease (parent, child or sibling) face a one percent – 1 in 100 – chance of acquiring it.
Serious health problems can develop when celiac disease remains untreated. A gluten allergy can appear at any age after someone starts eating foods or medicines that contain gluten.
The list of gluten-free wheat products is staggering. How could I live a life without couscous?
- Wheat starch
- Wheat bran
- Wheat germ
- Cracked wheat
- Fu (common in Asian foods)
- Graham flour
- Spelt (dinkel wheat or hulled wheat)
Now, check out this list of naturally gluten-free foods:
- Dairy products
- Fruits and vegetables
- Lean beef
- Oils and vinegars
Did you notice there was no mention of oats on either list? Further sleuthing revealed that this grain, while technically GLUTEN-FREE can become tainted when they are grown next to other crops that do contain gluten. Because the same equipment is often used to harvest crops in neighboring fields, cross-contamination is common.
Likewise, products made with oats are generally processed, prepared, and packaged in the same facilities as products with gluten. Cross-contamination can occur under these circumstances, too.
In addition, the sowing seed may include a small amount of wheat, rye or barley seed, ruining the purity of the oat crop.
Gluten is measured in parts per million (ppm). A patient with celiac disease may suffer an adverse immune system reaction after ingesting as little as 20 ppm of gluten.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) used an analytical methods-based approach to define the term gluten-free and adopted the criteria for any food labeled gluten-free as having 20 ppm gluten content. This boundary level was set with an eye for enforcement. According to the FDA:
“Analytical methods that are scientifically validated to reliably detect gluten at a level lower than 20 ppm are not currently available.”
Other countries do not embrace the FDA’s approach to setting health standards based on measurability. New Zealand, for example, distinguishes between foods that have zero gluten versus no wheat:
“Under the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, oats and their products are not permitted in foods labelled gluten free. Period. For this same reason, an oat-containing product labelled ‘gluten free’ from the United States for example might be labelled ‘wheat free’ in New Zealand.”
Although scientific studies do indicate that patients with celiac disease can eat oats with no ill effect, the high risk of contamination during cultivation, harvesting, processing, and packaging puts oats grown conventionally off-limits to anyone following a strict gluten-free diet.
One study found gluten levels higher than the established safety limits in 5 percent of products labeled gluten-free.
But oats, in and of themselves, contain no gluten. Next question?