Oats are a controversial topic in the gluten-free world. The question, “Are Oats Gluten Free?” is one that cannot be answered without an explanation. I’ll discuss why oats are controversial, as well as reveal whether two of the main brands of “gluten-free oats” (Bob’s Red Mill and Quaker Oats) are gluten free. This article is for informational and educational purposes only and contains affiliate links. Please read my disclosures.
There is a lot of confusing information about oats floating around on the Internet, making it 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 and explain why it’s such a confusing and sometimes touchy subject for many people in the gluten-free community.
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 Gluten-Free Quaker Oats Safe?
- Are Cheerios Safe for People with Celiac?
- Questions to Ask Gluten-Free Oat Manufacturers
- Why Some People with Celiac Disease Cannot Tolerate Oats
Are Oats Gluten Free?
While it’s true that oats are naturally gluten free, the reason they are controversial stems from the way they’re grown.
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 both grains is shared, too. These shared processes make oats highly susceptible to gluten cross contamination.
This means naturally gluten-free grains of oats are mixed with bits of wheat throughout the manufacturing process, making them no longer free from gluten contamination.
I will discuss purity vs. commodity oats next, however, regardless if a product contains oats, it must be labeled “gluten free” in order for it to be safe for someone on a gluten-free diet 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, the legal limit of gluten allowed in a product according to the FDA.
If a product 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 like the GFCO.
Regardless of what oats you purchase, purity or commodity, you must ensure the packaging bears a “gluten free” or, even better, a “certified gluten free” label.
Bottom line: 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.
What are 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 for manufacturers to produce. Products made with purity oats are oftentimes more expensive as a result.
Large manufacturers, like Quaker and Bob’s Red Mill, may find it difficult to find a farmer producing enough purity oats to satisfy demand for its 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
What are Commodity Oats?
Commodity oats are grown in fields that also grow wheat. This means the oat grains contain quite a bit of wheat as well.
However, in order for a manufacturer to make sure a product contains only gluten-free oats, the oat grains are optically or mechanically sorted to separate the oat grain from the wheat. They are also scrubbed to remove any remnants of wheat gluten. This makes commodity oats more plentiful and much cheaper than purity oats.
Large-sized companies rely on commodity oats to meet larger consumer demand as well as to offer competitive pricing.
Large 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 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. Bob’s Red Mill oats are not certified gluten free either.
I 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 gluten-free 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’ve 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. Bottom line, Bob’s Red Mill makes gluten-free oats safe for people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities to consume. Here’s why:
Batch Testing: 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.
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. I find this criticism misleading and unfounded.
Dedicated GF Facility: 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: 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: 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.”
While Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free oats are not (yet) certified gluten free, the company currently sells 10 GFCO-certified products, including Bob’s Bars and Pan Baked Granolas, both which contain oats.
Nima Sensor Tested: Finally, I put Bob’s Red Mill oats to the Nima Sensor test, and it passed with flying colors. The Nima Sensor is a portable gluten-detecting device. (Another gluten-detecting sensor to check out is called the ALLIS Sensor.)
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; however, in my opinion, Bob’s Red Mill oats are safe to eat even on the strictest of gluten-free diets.
Are Gluten-Free Quaker Oats Safe?
Another large manufacturer of gluten-free oats is Quaker. Quaker makes Quick 1-Minute Oats and several flavored instant oatmeals that are labeled gluten free. While not certified gluten free by a third party, Quaker says its commodity oats have been sorted and rigorously tested to be g-free.
Quaker says, “Oats are inherently gluten free, but may come in contact with gluten-containing grains at the field, during storage or during transportation. As the world’s leading experts in oat milling, Quaker employs a breakthrough process to sort and clean the oats. This process uses both mechanical and optical sorters to specifically remove these stray grains based on density, color and length, applying a sorting protocol that we believe to be unique to the industry.
“We confirm our capability to remove these grains with multiple quality checks throughout the milling process up through finished product testing so that our millers can confidently produce a gluten-free oat product that meets FDA standards. This includes testing individual samples from each production lot of our finished product. Only if each of those samples in the product lot passes analytical testing can the lot be released from the mill. Our milling expertise is unparalleled and is how we’ve been able to turn oats into Quaker oats. As is always the case, the quality of our products and safety of our consumers is our number one priority. We take this seriously. It’s that care and attention to detail that we believe has helped earn us the trust of consumers for all these years.”
I also independently tested Quaker oats for hidden gluten with my Nima Sensor and Nima came back with a smiley face (no gluten found).
Are the Oats Used to Make Cheerios Safe?
I’m asked almost daily about Cheerios. It is the most accessible cereal brand around, and most Cheerios flavors are labeled “gluten free.” The brand is also a sponsor of the Celiac Disease Foundation, which is basically an endorsement from one of the leading celiac non-profits in the world.
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 it’s labeled “gluten free,” due to concerns about the potential levels of gluten in each box, and due to what is says is 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.”
I tested Cheerios and Apple Cinnamon Cheerios for hidden gluten with the Nima Sensor. You can see how they fared in my article, List of Gluten-Free Cereals.
Bottom Line: Until General Mills is more transparent in its testing, or until Cheerios become certified gluten free by a third party, many people avoid the cereal brand. I personally feel comfortable eating Cheerios, but I understand why some do not. No judgement; simply do what is best for you.
Questions to Ask Oat Manufacturers
If you want to eat oats while following a strict gluten-free diet, ask these important questions 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?
If you have celiac disease and cannot tolerate oats, then it doesn’t matter if the oats are commodity or purity oats; just don’t eat them. You can get tested for gluten cross reactivity. Learn more in this article, Understanding Gluten Cross Reactivity and Gluten Cross-Reactive Foods.
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 and helps you make a more educated decision about what you feel comfortable eating.
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.