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Are Oats Gluten-Free?

There is quite a bit of confusion about dear old oats and if they are in fact gluten-free. As a result, I was asked to shed some light on the situation so here it is….the good news and the bad news for some but the oats truth!

Firstly we need to clarify what gluten is and where it is found. Put very simply, gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. Each of those foods contains a different gluten-containing protein. They are called:

  • Gliadin in wheat

  • Hordein in barley

  • Secalin in rye

  • Avenin in oats

Currently, the tests detecting gluten in food can only detect gliadin, hordein, secalin but not avenin as it is a slightly different protein. As a result, the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Code does NOT allow any oat-containing foods to be labelled as gluten-free.

Avenin is an essential part of oats which means they will never be truly gluten-free. Oats that are labelled or described as “gluten-free” are free from wheat-contamination by having no detectable gliadin, hordein or secalin. So while these oats could be labelled as gluten-free in Europe or the United States (due to differing regulations), here in New Zealand (and in Australia) they are equivalent to wheat-free oats rather than being gluten-free.

So while gluten-intolerant people may be able to tolerate a small amount of wheat-free oats or even regular oats, those with Coeliac disease need to be more careful. Coeliac New Zealand states that one in five people with Coeliac disease will react to pure uncontaminated oats. However, given that gut damage can occur even without symptoms, oats of any kind are not recommended for people with Coeliac disease. The only way to tell if oats are suitable for a particular person with Coeliac disease would be for them to have a biopsy before starting to eat uncontaminated (wheat-free) oats and then to repeat the biopsy after three months of eating the oats to see if they had caused any gut damage.

So if you’ve been eating oats as part of wheat-free or “gluten-free” diet and you don’t have Coeliac disease and you feel fine after eating them, then I'd suggest you can continue to enjoy your morning bowl of porridge or your homemade Anzac cookies knowing oats are an amazingly nutritious food source. However, if you’re Coeliac, I wouldn’t recommend eating oats unless you can be sure they aren’t causing any gut damage (remember you can have damage without any symptoms!).

The good news for those who need to avoid oats is that there are plenty of delicious oat alternatives. I have listed just some below:

  • Wholegrain brown rice flakes to make porridge, homemade muesli, crumble toppings or Anzac cookies - see my Chia Rice Porridge recipe here

  • Ground almonds mixed with honey, nuts, seeds, cinnamon and butter to make fruit crumble toppings - see my recipe here

  • Quinoa, millet or buckwheat groats make delicious porridge

  • Quinoa flakes can be used in place of oats in Anzac cookies - see My Darling Lemon Thyme’s Recipe here

  • Don’t forget about leftover cooked and cooled brown rice to make porridge too – here’s one of my favourite recipes!

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