Oats are a controversial ingredient in the gluten-free space, and you might be wondering, are oats gluten free? And, if there is gluten in oats, what can you do to stay safe? I get to the bottom of it all in this important article. This article contains affiliate links. Please read my disclosures.
There is a lot of confusing and contradictory information about oats floating around in the gluten-free world, all of which make it hard for people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity to know what to believe and who to trust.
As a student of journalism and certified integrative nutrition coach specializing in gluten disorders, I want to get to the bottom of this controversial topic and explain why oats are complicated and confusing.
I also want to help you rise above the rumors and hysteria; misinformation quickly spreads on Facebook and by well-meaning but misinformed friends.
My goal is to present a balanced look at the world of gluten-free oats, including a factual conversation about the safety of purity vs. commodity oats and why the gluten-free community’s relationship with oats is complicated.
I hope this information will empower you to decide whether or not to eat oats, what brands of oats are gluten-free and safe, and ultimately determine what is right for you.
Is There Gluten in Oats?
While oats are naturally gluten free, they’re grown in rotation with wheat and utilize the same equipment used to harvest and manufacture wheat. This means that oats are highly cross-contaminated with wheat throughout the entire growing and manufacturing process.
Some manufacturers utilize oats grown on dedicated gluten-free fields, known as purity oats, while others utilize optically and/or mechanically sorted oats known as commodity oats. I discuss purity vs. commodity oats later in this article.
A product containing oats must be labeled “gluten free” in order for it to be considered safe for people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity to consume.
For example, Nature Valley Oats ‘N Honey bars appear to be gluten free based on the ingredient list, but because it contains oats, it cannot be assumed that it’s gluten free. My independent testing of the bars with my Nima Sensor, a portable gluten-detecting device, confirmed that the product contains wheat gluten.
However, when a product containing oats is labeled gluten free, it means the manufacturer has validated that the product contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, the limit of gluten allowed in a product as set by the FDA.
Even better, if a product is certified gluten free, it means the product has been verified to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten (or even less than 10 ppm) by a third party, like the GFCO. It also demonstrates that the manufacturer has taken additional steps to ensure the safety of the oats and final product.
Regardless of what oats you purchase, purity or commodity, you must ensure the packaging is labeled “gluten free” or “certified gluten free.”
Bottom line: Oats are naturally gluten free; however, they are cross-contaminated with bits of wheat during their lifecycle. If you’re 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.
Purity Protocol Oats
Purity protocol oats are grown on dedicated oat fields using dedicated harvesting and packaging equipment, making some believe they are safe from the field to the grocery store.
Purity oats are typically more expensive than commodity oats because they’re more labor-intensive to produce. In turn, products made with purity oats are more expensive.
Gluten-free brands that only use purity protocol oats include:
- 88 Acres
- Bakery on Main (may source its oats from GF Harvest – see below)
- Canyon Bakehouse
- Enjoy Life
- GF Jules
- Gluten-Free Prairie
- Made Good Foods
- Montana Gluten Free
- ZEGO Foods
What about GF Harvest?
GF Harvest says its products are made with purity protocol oats and are certified gluten free by the GFCO. However, several Nima Sensor users received “gluten found” messages when they tested the product.
The Gluten-Free Watchdog sent those exact Nima-tested GF Harvest products to a lab for further testing using the sandwich R5 ELISA test. The ELISA test also found quantifiable levels of gluten in both the GF Harvest oat flour and rolled oats. (You can also send product samples in question to Bio Diagnostics for further ELISA testing too.)
Someone asked The Gluten Free Watchdog if the “quantifiable” levels of gluten detected were under the 10 ppm standards set forth by the GFCO. The founder of the site said this information is for paid subscribers only, and anything under lock and key may not be disclosed publicly by anyone else, so I’m unable to report on it.
Are Trader Joe’s Oats Purity Protocol Safe?
Trader Joe’s says on the packaging of its gluten-free rolled oats that it uses oats grown on dedicated gluten-free fields, implying that the oats are purity protocol oats.
However, The Gluten Free Watchdog says she has been unable to track down the source of the oats, and based on the Watchdog’s latest testing, the amount of gluten can vary from < 5 ppm to > 80 ppm. These levels are well above the < 20 ppm legal limit set forth by the FDA.
I tested Trader Joe’s gluten-free labeled rolled oats long ago for hidden gluten with my Nima Sensor. A smile means no gluten found.
It’s evident, however, that things may have changed since I first tested these oats, or that the Nima Sensor has not given an accurate result. I will be sending oats for further testing shortly and will make that information free and public when it’s ready.
Large manufacturers, like Quaker Oats and Bob’s Red Mill, may find it difficult to secure enough purity oats to satisfy the demand for their products and keep their prices competitive. This is why mainstream brands turn to commodity oats instead.
Commodity oats are grown on fields that also grow wheat and therefore are cross-contaminated with wheat.
However, manufacturers have created technology that enables them to optically or mechanically sort the oat grains from the wheat kernels. The oats are also scrubbed to remove any wheat dust.
Large-sized companies rely on commodity gluten-free oats to meet consumer demand for gluten-free oats and to remain competitive in their pricing.
Brands that use commodity gluten-free 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)
- One Degree (the company says it works with farmers who use “geographic separation” of oats from wheat, then it mechanically sorts the oats)
- Quaker Oats (mechanically and optically sorted commodity oats)
Are Bob’s Red Mill Oats Gluten Free?
Bob’s Red Mill is a brand many people in the gluten-free community know and trust, and the brand uses a combination of purity and commodity oats to make its gluten-free products.
I took pause when I learned early on in my celiac journey that Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free oats were neither purity protocol oats nor certified gluten free.
However, Bob’s Red Mill makes gluten-free oats safe for people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities to consume, as the company goes to great lengths to make sure the products are safe.
In fact, 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 that is able to detect low levels of gluten in food and beverages.
The company also says that before gluten-free items are released to retail, they’re tested again in a dedicated gluten-free quality control facility to ensure they’re free from gluten.
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 because Bob’s Red Mill does a lot to keep the gluten-free community safe.
All of its gluten-free labeled products are processed and packaged in a dedicated gluten-free building that processes and packages nothing but gluten-free products.
Bob’s Red Mill says it only works with oat suppliers 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,” says a spokesperson in a written statement to Good For You Gluten Free.
Furthermore, 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.” And 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 of which contain oats.
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 properly sorted and go through rigorous testing to ensure they’re gluten-free and safe.
Are Quaker Oats Safe?
Quaker makes Quick 1-Minute Oats and several flavored instant oatmeals that are labeled gluten free. While not certified gluten free, Quaker says its commodity oats have been sorted and rigorously tested to be gluten 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 expert 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 the 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 gluten-free 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?
Cheerios is one of the most accessible cereal brands around, and most varieties of Cheerios are labeled gluten free. The brand is also a sponsor of the Celiac Disease Foundation and proudly displays this on boxes of its cereal.
However, despite the gluten-free label, the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA) recommends that people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity avoid Cheerios, even if it’s labeled gluten free, due to (a) concerns about potential gluten in each box, and (b) due to what it says is General Mills’ unwillingness to be fully transparent in its testing methods.
Cheerios uses commodity oats, but that isn’t what concerns most people. Most concerning is that General Mills has been accused of not properly testing 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. Some feel comfortable eating Cheerios, while others do not. Please do not judge people and allow people to do what they feel comfortable doing.
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 protocol or commodity oats:
- Are the oats certified gluten free by a third-party agency?
- Are there 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 oats before they enter the facility and after processing? And do they use a reputable testing tool, such as ELISA?
- Is the manufacturer transparent in reporting the results of its tests?
If oats concern you, a little digging will help you understand how committed a company is to creating safe gluten-free products.
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 protocol oats, don’t eat them. You can get tested for gluten cross-reactivity, which I talk about in detail in my 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 gluten-free 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 so you can make an educated decision about whether or not oats fit into your gluten-free diet.