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These days, everyone knows someone who is trying a gluten free diet. One of the most common questions we field at Bob’s Red Mill is about gluten and oats. Oats have long held a mysterious place in the world of gluten free. Are they gluten free? If oats are naturally gluten free, why is important that they be tested for gluten? AND, if oats are gluten free, why can some people tolerate them and others cannot? I’m going to try to clear this up for you today.
First, let’s go back to the start. Oats are indeed naturally free from gluten, the protein in wheat, rye and barley that many people cannot tolerate. Yep. If you walked into a perfect field of oats and picked just one groat, chances are pretty good that it would be completely gluten free. We don’t live in a perfect world, though. I’m sure you’ve heard of crop rotation, where farmers change out their crops from year to year to keep the soil active and keep the land fresh. It’s a basic part of farming. Oats, wheat, barley and rye are often grown in rotation cycles. Fields of oats will typically have a few wheat plants that sprout up, it’s just part of farming. That is one reason why oats need special attention to be gluten free.
The second reason that oats need extra precautions to be gluten free is plain old cross contact. At the most basic levels, we’re talking about grain commodities and these basic agricultural products move in huge batches from farm to truck to silo to truck to grain cleaning to truck to … well, you get the picture. There are really quite a few steps between field and table. More steps mean more chances for the truck that just delivered wheat to pick up oats and contaminate them during transit.
The third major reason that oats can easily contain gluten is that oat groats and wheat berries are strikingly similar, which makes the technology needed to separate the two very expensive. It actually involves a highly technical color sorter to make sure that wheat berries don’t end up in the oat groats. Many grain processors do not have that technology, after all it is much simpler to separate debris from grains. The demand is much higher for grains to be free from rocks and chaff than from each other.
Bob’s Red Mill removes all three of those issues by working with our suppliers and educating them on the risk of cross contact, as well as making sure they understand how very important it is to us that our oats are indeed gluten free. Additionally, we work with grain cleaners who use the specialized equipment I mentioned above to color sort the oats. Finally, our gluten free oats are tested for gluten upon arrival at our facility. After they pass that test, they are processed and packaged, where they are tested again to be sure they are still gluten free.
Why can’t some people tolerate even the purest of oats? Let’s step back a second. Gluten free or not, some people cannot tolerate oats. Period. Gluten, as we commonly know it, does not play into this. Oats contain a different protein called avenin. Avenin is similar to gluten and, like other proteins- gluten in wheat, casein in cow’s milk- some people just cannot tolerate it. To complicate matters a bit further, people who have celiac disease can find the fiber in oats challenging to digest. If they are new to the diet or do not typically eat fiber-rich foods, oats can be very demanding on the gut. This is why we recommend adding oats to a gluten free diet slowly.
That’s the long and the short of it. If you have further questions about gluten free oats, leave them in the comments and I’ll address them.
Check out our selection of gluten free oats here.