Oats are a controversial topic in gluten-free circles. The question, “Are Oats Gluten Free?” is one that cannot be answered without an explanation. This article is for informational and educational purposes only and contains affiliate links. Please read my disclosures.
There is so much confusing information about oats on the Internet, and it’s hard to know what to believe and who to trust.
As a student of journalism and certified integrative nutrition coach specializing in gluten disorders, I wanted to get to bottom of this controversial topic.
My goal is to present a balanced look at the world of gluten-free oats, ultimately allowing you to decide for yourself what works for you and what you feel safe eating.
In this article, I will discuss:
- Are Oats Gluten Free?
- Purity Protocol vs. Commodity Oats
- Are Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Oats Really Gluten Free?
- Are the Oats Used to Make Cheerios Safe?
- Questions to Ask Gluten-Free Oat Manufacturers
- Why Some People with Celiac Disease Cannot Tolerate Oats
There is so much to discuss, so let’s get started.
Are Oats Gluten Free?
While it’s true that oats are naturally gluten free, the way they are grown make them highly susceptible to cross contamination with wheat, and therein lies the controversy.
Oats are typically grown in rotation with wheat on co-mingled fields used to grow wheat and oats, and the equipment used to harvest and process wheat and oats is shared, too.
This means naturally gluten-free grains of oat are mixed with bits of wheat throughout the manufacturing process, making them no longer free from gluten contamination.
Many companies grow oats on dedicated gluten-free fields (purity oats) or have high-tech means to optically and/or mechanically sort oat grains from wheat (commodity oats).
I will discuss purity vs. commodity oats next, but rest assured, if a product contains oats, it must be labeled “gluten free” in order for it to be safe for someone with celiac disease to eat it.
If it’s labeled “gluten free” it means the manufacturer has validated that the oats contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. If the product that contains oats is “certified gluten free,” it means the oats have been validated to contain less than 20 ppm (or even less than 10 ppm) of gluten by a third party.
Regardless of what oats you purchase, make sure the package bears a “gluten free” or, even better, a “certified gluten free” label.
Bottom line: Yes, oats are naturally gluten free; however, they are cross contaminated with bits of wheat during their lifecycle. If you are following a gluten-free diet, only eat oats, or products made with oats, that are labeled “gluten free” or “certified gluten free.”
Purity Protocol vs. Commodity Oats
There are two types of gluten-free oats commercially available on the market: Purity and commodity oats.
(1) Purity Protocol Oats: Purity protocol oats are oats that are grown on dedicated oat fields using dedicated harvesting and packaging equipment, making them gluten-free safe from field to grocery store.
Purity oats are typically more expensive than commodity oats because they are more labor intensive to produce. Products made with purity oats are oftentimes more expensive as a result. Large manufacturers may find it difficult to find a farmer producing enough purity oats to satisfy demand for his or her product.
Gluten-free brands that only use purity protocol oats include:
- 88 Acres
- Bakery on Main
- Canyon Bakehouse
- Enjoy Life
- GF Jules
- GF Harvest and Canyon Oats brands
- Gluten Free Prairie
- Made Good Foods
- Montana Gluten Free
- ZEGO Foods
(2) Commodity Oats: Commodity oats are grown in rotation with wheat, so a lot of wheat grains make their way into the oat grain pile. However the oat grains are optically or mechanically sorted and scrubbed to separate the oat grain from the wheat. Commodity oats are more plentiful and cheaper.
Large companies rely on commodity oats, likely to meet larger demand for their products along with competitive pricing.
Brands that rely on commodity oats (or a mixture of commodity and purity oats) include:
- Bob’s Red Mill (combination of commodity and purity oats)
- General Mills (mechanically sifted commodity oats)
- Quaker Oats (mechanically and optically sorted commodity oats)
Are Bob’s Red Mill Oats Really Gluten Free?
Bob’s Red Mill is a brand many people in the gluten-free community know and trust because the company makes so many gluten-free products.
Bob’s Red Mill does not use purity protocol oats; instead relying on a combination of purity oats and optically-sorted oats to meet demand for its products. Their oats are not certified gluten free either.
I absolutely took pause when I learned early on in my celiac disease life that Bob’s Red Mill oats were neither purity oats nor third-party certified. How could this be? Could someone with celiac disease safely consume Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free oats?
It’s easy to assume no and shut down the conversation based on what I have said so far, and many people have jumped to this conclusion.
However, I have done a lot of digging into this topic, and know there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the Bob’s Red Mill brand.
Batch Testing: First, Bob’s Red Mill says its oats are batch tested before, during, and after processing using an ELISA Gluten Assay. The Gluten ELISA is a quantitative test able to detect low levels of gluten in food ingredients and in prepared and processed foods and beverages.
This means Bob’s Red Mill batch tests its oats upon delivery, during production, and after packaging to ensure they contain less than 20 ppm of gluten in any given batch.
The company says that before its gluten-free items are released to retail, it’s tested again in a dedicated gluten-free quality control facility to ensure no gluten exists in the final product.
Note: Critics will say that Bob’s Red Mill doesn’t go far enough in its testing for “hot spots” or the spotty presence of wheat that may be missed by even the most stringent testing measures.
Dedicated GF Facility: Second, Bob’s Red Mill says all its gluten-free products are processed and packaged in a separate, dedicated gluten-free building that processes and packages nothing but gluten-free products.
Quality Oat Suppliers: Third, Bob’s Red Mill says it works only with oat suppliers who are committed to practices for eliminating the presence of gluten.
“Our suppliers are innovative in controlling the presence of gluten through a variety of methods, including crop rotation management plans, and the use of optical sorting technology. Regardless of our suppliers’ chosen methods for meeting our gluten-free specification, we require that each lot is tested and confirmed gluten free before authorization for shipment to Bob’s Red Mill,” said a spokesperson in a written statement to Good For You Gluten Free.
Some Are Certified GF: Fourth, many Bob’s Red Mill products are now certified gluten free by the GFCO, with the company confirming that more products will be certified down the road “with time as logistics allow.”
Nima Sensor Tested: Fifth, and finally, I put Bob’s Red Mill oats to the Nima Sensor test, and it passed with flying colors.
Bottom Line: Bob’s Red Mill oats are mechanically sorted oats that go through rigorous testing to ensure their purity and safety. Consumers can decide for themselves if they feel Bob’s Red Mill has gone far enough to ensure their safety. In my opinion, Bob’s Red Mill oats are safe to eat even on a strict gluten-free diet.
Are the Oats Used to Make Cheerios Safe?
I’m asked almost daily about Cheerios. They are the most accessible cereal brand around, and they are labeled “gluten free.”
It’s important to understand a few things about Cheerios as you decide whether or not you feel safe consuming them.
First, it’s important to note that the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA) recommends that people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity do not consume Cheerios, even if they’re labeled “gluten free,” due to concerns about the potential levels of gluten in each box, and due to General Mills’ unwillingness to be fully transparent in its testing methods.
Cheerios uses optically- and mechanically-sorted commodity oats, but that isn’t what concerns most people. Most concerning is that General Mills does not properly test each batch to ensure all boxes are free from gluten. You can read more about the baffling testing process in this article by the Gluten-Free Watchdog.
On top of it all, the gluten-free community grew wary of Cheerios long ago after gluten made its way into nearly two million boxes, which General Mills recalled in 2015. The company blamed it on “human error.”
Bottom Line: Until General Mills is more transparent in its testing, or until Cheerios become certified gluten free by a third party, it’s best to avoid altogether. Try Three Wishes O-Shaped cereal instead.
Questions to Ask Oat Manufacturers
If you want to eat oats while following a strict gluten-free diet, ask these important questions first of any manufacturer making gluten-free claims regardless if they use purity or commodity oats:
- Are the oats certified gluten free by a third-party agency?
- Does the company have satisfactory practices in place to keep the processing and packaging of gluten-free oats separate from other products that contain gluten?
- Does the company batch test the oats before they enter the facility and after processing with a reputable testing tool, such as ELISA?
- Is the manufacturer transparent in reporting the results of its tests?
Doing a little digging to understand how committed a company is to creating safe products for the gluten-free community can help you determine, for yourself, what you feel safe eating.
Why Can’t Some People with Celiac Disease Tolerate Oats?
Some people with celiac disease experience cross reactivity when they eat oats, meaning the protein in oats (avenin) is often confused for the protein in wheat (gluten).
If you have celiac disease and cannot tolerate oats, then it doesn’t matter if the oats are commodity or purity oats… don’t eat them.
Rest assured, the majority of people with celiac disease can tolerate oats just fine, including me. In fact, this study concludes that gluten-free oats can be tolerated by the vast majority of the celiac disease population, and oats can be a great addition to a balanced, gluten-free diet, offering up plenty of heart-healthy soluble fiber.
Deciding For Yourself
Ultimately, the decision to eat oats – and whether to enjoy purity vs. commodity oats – is with you.
I hope that this article helps to shed light on the controversy over gluten-free oats.
My hope is, that after reading this article, you’ll have more clarity on gluten-free oats, and feel confident in your decision to eat oats, based on facts, not fear or fiction.