In this article, I attempt to provide accurate, unbiased, and balanced information about the Gluten-Free Watchdog’s recent statement on gluten-free oats. This article does not provide medical advice. All opinions are my own. Please see my disclosures.
The Gluten-Free Watchdog issued a statement this week saying, “Gluten-Free Watchdog cannot recommend any brands of gluten-free oats” based on what the website’s founder says is an “unprecedented” number of oat samples testing with quantifiable gluten.
If you’re unfamiliar with Gluten-Free Watchdog, it’s a website created by a registered dietician, Trisha Thompson.
Thompson sends food to the Bia Diagnostics lab to be tested for gluten. She then reports the lab’s findings to her paid subscribers. Subscribers pay an initial fee of $29.99 to see the Watchdog’s entire library of tests, then a monthly recurring fee of $6.99 to see three additional monthly tests.
The self-proclaimed “watchdog” is loved, feared, and sometimes controversial.
She came out against Cheerios in 2015, saying she “cannot in good conscious recommend gluten-free Cheerios.” Despite her own testing data, and even though the Celiac Disease Foundation vocally supports Cheerios, she has remained steadfast in her statement.
Thompson also has come out against competitor testing product Nima Sensor, which makes a portable gluten-detecting device that could make the need for expensive lab testing obsolete. She questions Nima’s accuracy, which Nima strongly rebuffs as “incomplete” and “misleading.”
(Good For You Gluten Free recommends responsible use of Nima. Read What You Need to Know About Nima Sensor Before You Buy.)
And now Thompson has taken an extreme stance on oats, telling the community she cannot recommend any oat brands, including products that contain oats.
For Watchdog purists, it’s time to say goodbye to Oreo cookies, Pamela’s graham crackers, Bakery on Main granola, and Meli’s Monster Cookies, to name a few brands whose products contain gluten-free oats.
Hundreds of gluten-free and certified gluten-free products contain and rely on oats to improve the texture and structure of foods made without gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley.
Being Gluten-Free Is Hard
As a registered dietician, one can only assume that Thompson knows how overly-restrictive eating can take its toll on the gluten-free community. Hypervigilance can lead to eating disorders, mental and emotional anguish, food fear, anxiety, and disordered eating.
Given this information, I asked Thompson for clarification:
Hi Tricia, Your statement today says you do “not recommend any oats.” I have questions. Can you share specific data and insights to justify this blanket statement? As you know, your words influence many people and may restrict people’s diets beyond what is necessary, leading to lower quality of life, overly-restrictive dieting, fear, and disordered eating. This also opens the door to hurt many businesses and may be libelous to those companies that take great caution in ensuring their oats and end products are safe. I kindly ask that you provide more information and data to support this recommendation and pray the community will not rebuke me for asking for such proof points.-Me (Jenny, Good For You Gluten Free)
This is the response from Thompson:
What was actually stated: “At this time (April, 2023), Gluten Free Watchdog cannot recommend any brand of gluten-free oats.”-Her (Thompson, Gluten-Free Watchdog)
Gee, thanks for worrying more about technicalities than answering a sincere and concerning question.
For now, one can assume that Thompson’s statement stems from the fact that she found quantifiable levels of gluten in purity protocol oats from GF Harvest and certified gluten-free granola from Safe + Fair, which I write about in this article.
She hints, however, that there may be more companies putting the community at risk when she says, “We have seen an increase in oats testing with quantifiable gluten either at/above 20 ppm OR above the level of gluten allowed by their certifying organization.”
(Editor’s Note: Certifying agencies, like the GFCO, require products to test below ten ppm of gluten, whereas the FDA only requires less than 20 ppm.)
Should You Eat [Gluten-Free] Oats?
Oats are naturally gluten-free; however, they are grown in rotation with wheat, and the same equipment is used to harvest and process oats as wheat. This makes oats highly susceptible to cross-contamination.
Responsible companies optically and/or mechanically sort and scrub their oats to remove gluten contaminants, making these “cleaned” oats safe for the gluten-free community to consume.
Therefore, it is Good For You Gluten Free’s position that oats can be enjoyed by anyone following a gluten-free diet, and avoiding oats would be an unnecessary restriction that may lead to anxiety, food fear, lower quality of life, and hypervigilance. (Read: Can You Be Too Gluten-Free? How to Balance Dietary Vigilance Without Losing Your Mind.)
I also believe the Watchdog’s statement is overreaching, and some brands offer safe products. Painting the entire gluten-free oat industry with a single brush is not my style.
That said, because Thompson says she found “unprecedented levels of gluten” in oat products in 2023, I believe the gluten-free community should be cautious when consuming oats. I also believe the gluten-free community should be willing to shift its stance as more information comes to light. This is a fluid situation.
In the meantime, I’ve included a few strategies you can employ now to protect yourself:
(1) Contact Brands Directly: Do your homework. If you enjoy eating oats or products that contain oats, contact the company and ask what measures they take to ensure the safety of their oats.
You may find the brand of oats you enjoy is already going above and beyond to ensure its gluten-free claim is legit. Bob’s Red Mill, for example, is one company that employs satisfactory testing methods, which I write about in this article.
(2) Test Your Food: You can test any suspect oat product for hidden gluten with a Nima Sensor. Nima can help get you out of food jail and help you feel more confident enjoying a specific oat product.
And below is a picture of my Nima testing Bob’s Red Mill GF Rolled Oats. A smiley face means it didn’t find any gluten.
(3) Use Commonsense: Blanket statements (all, any, every, never, etc.) should be used judiciously, and blanket warning statements should be backed by data.
To give Thompson the benefit of the doubt, I suspect she is only sharing bits and pieces of information with the public while enlightening her paid subscribers with full-on support data (I don’t know). Perhaps this is a tactic to grow her paid subscriber base (I don’t know).
What I do know is that without supporting data, such words could hurt gluten-free oat producers and companies selling gluten-free oats. In turn, it could expose the Watchdog to libel lawsuits from brands. Let us not forget that Food Libel Laws are active in 13 states, and even the Beef producers went after the queen of influence, Oprah.
(4) Don’t Conflate Oat Testing with Oat Intolerance: Finally, Thompson’s recommendation to avoid oats is based on her testing data. It’s not based on the fact that some celiac patients cannot tolerate oats. Individuals who experience adverse reactions to oats should avoid oats; they should, however, be careful not to conflate testing data with an oat disorder. Read more about cross-reactivity in my article, Understanding Gluten Cross Reactivity and Gluten Cross-Reactive Foods.
You might enjoy these articles, too:
- Are Oats Gluten Free? Unpacking Confusing and Contradictory Information
- Is the FDA’s 20 ppm Gluten Threshold Enough?
- What You Need to Know About Nima Sensor Before You Buy
- Can You Be Too Gluten-Free? How to Balance Dietary Vigilance Without Losing Your Mind
- List of Gluten-Free Cereals – Tested for Hidden Gluten