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Gluten Sensitivity and Oats: What to Avoid and Why

Do oats contain gluten? Are oats suitable for those suffering from gluten allergies? These questions have been the source of numerous studies over the past years. Unfortunately, the evidence hasn't been strong enough to provide a definitive answer either way. In addition, gluten sensitivity comes in many levels of severity and with varied effects, again making it difficult to establish hard and fast dos and don'ts. However, some basic knowledge about oats and gluten can help one feel better informed.

Gluten in Oats

The first question centers around the contents of the oats themselves. Do oats contain gluten? Most research seems to indicate that oats themselves are naturally gluten-free, at least from the form of gluten found in wheat. This is good news, but of course, it begs the question of just why there is so much concern over oats and gluten-free diets.

Gluten Contamination in Oats

The majority of concern about oats and gluten is over contamination from other gluten-containing grains. There are numerous ways that contamination can occur. Oats are a rotation crop, often rotated with wheat, and when oats are planted in a field previously containing wheat it's possible that there may be some mixing of grains.

Harvesting and processing procedures may also cause contamination. The same equipment may be used to harvest multiple grains, or the same machinery used to process multiple grains. Even the transportation of these grains to the processing plant may be suspect if a company transports multiple grains. Any time multiple grains are handled in close quarters, the risk of cross-contamination is there. And for those who are extremely gluten intolerant, even the slightest contamination can be enough to cause an adverse reaction.

Gluten-free Oats

Given the many possible ways oats can become contaminated, steps have been taken by some manufacturers to market gluten-free oats. These companies insist on strict methods of growing, processing, and transporting oats to ensure that they are gluten-free. To qualify as gluten-free, oats must test to contain less than 20 ppm of gliadin, the protein that causes the immune reaction in those with gluten sensitivity. Many companies now offer gluten-free oats as a safer alternative, and these oats usually test at less than 3 ppm of gliadin.

But are oats still a safe option for those with gluten allergies? Some research has suggested that oats do indeed contain a protein similar to gluten, and while this is may be different than the gluten found in wheat, rye, or barley, it does raise a red flag. While the presence of this protein and its effects has not been conclusively proven, the fact that some people who suffer from gluten allergies do in fact experience reactions from eating oats (even those labeled as gluten-free) seems to suggest that oats do contain some form of gluten.

For those with gluten sensitivity it's important to realize that there is no guarantee that oats will not produce a reaction when consumed. While some who suffer from gluten allergies can indeed eat oats with no sensitivity, there are others who cannot eat oats without a reaction.

While the final verdict is still out on oats and gluten-free diets, it's a good idea for those with gluten sensitivities to carefully monitor their body's reaction to oats, and realize that just because the oats are labeled gluten-free doesn't guarantee immunity from a reaction.

Oat Alternatives

For gluten sensitive individuals who happen to love oats, this may come as bad news. But there are a number of alternative grains out there that can easily substitute for oats. Quinoa is a highly nutritious grain that can be purchased in a variety of forms, including flakes that can be made into a delicious, oatmeal-like breakfast cereal or used in cookies or baked goods. Cereal flakes (think corn flakes) or rice flakes can stand in for oats. Buckwheat and millet are also good oat alternatives. Rice can stand in for oats in a number of main dishes. So if oats are no longer an option, don't despair, get creative.

Who knows what future research will uncover in the debate over oats and gluten-free diets. As research methods become more fully developed, one can only hope that more conclusive evidence on this question will be provided.

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