Are oats gluten free?

Leisa Cournane28 Feb 2022

When someone has Coeliac Disease (an auto-immune disease against gliadin and glutenin (gluten) that requires a person to be completely Gluten Free) or Non Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) (an intolerance to gluten without a antibodies toward gluten being produced) they are required to cut gluten out of their diet. Gluten-containing grains often make up a large proportion of some diets and people therefore look for a replacement.

This is where the question are Oats gluten free come up a lot.


What are oats? 

The most common type of oats in NZ are made from oat groats from the Poaceae family. In their natural state, these oats have an outer husk that is indigestible to humans. The husk is removed during processing when turning oats into food. 

From there the kind of processing determines the kind of oat in the finished product. Steel cut oats for instance are minimally processed, with removed husks and chopped into smaller pieces by a steel blade. Rolled oats go through a steaming and flattening process that allows them to be cooked more quickly. 

Gluten and Oats

Natural oat groats don’t contain gliadin and glutenin. However, there are a few caveats to this. While they don’t contain gliadin and glutenin, they do have a protein called avenin that has a similar chemical makeup to gluten. About 20% of people with Coeliac Disease have a similar reaction to avenin as they do to gliadin and glutenin, the gluten part of wheat. To add to the confusion oats are often processed with other gluten containing grains so cross contamination can occur.

This correlation makes it complicated to label oats as gluten-free. In fact, it is an ongoing debate that differs for different countries. In countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, certain oats can be labelled gluten-free if they meet all other guidelines. However in Australia in New Zealand, any item containing oats can’t be labelled gluten free; even when all other standards are followed. 

“Gluten-friendly” oats

Since oats can’t be labelled gluten-free in New Zealand, there are some other indicators for people with Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity or those that think the 20% risk is acceptable or already know they don’t have a reaction to oats. 

The “gluten-friendly” tag is one of these. This usually means that the ingredients themselves don’t have gluten but may be prepared somewhere where gluten is nearby like in the same kitchen. Oats fall into this category in NZ because of avenin. 

Crossed grain symbol

For official gluten free products, look for the crossed grain symbol. The official blue and white one comes from Coeliac New Zealand to denote that the product has been tested and confirmed to be gluten free. 

However, this symbol comes from Coeliac New Zealand and companies need to pay a license to use it. So just because a product doesn’t have it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has gluten; it could very well be gluten free without. 

Risk factors with gluten and oats

Even when someone isn’t affected by the avenin protein, oats still have a higher risk of getting cross-contamination than most other products. This is because they tend to be produced in the same factories as gluten-containing cereals. Many will use the same equipment too since the refining process is similar. 

Because of this higher risk, you’ll sometimes see products that have no gluten that don’t have a gluten-free designation. Many products use phrases like “may contain traces of gluten” or “Made on a line where” gluten cereals are also processed. Since oats are often used with these cereals--and also look somewhat similar--the risk is higher than with other products. 

So are oats gluten free? 

With so many complications it’s hard to give a definitive answer. Yes, oats are gliadin and glutenin free. However, with numerous risk factors and the avenin protein, high-risk individuals and Coeliacs should be cautious about consuming them. If you’re unsure, consult with your health professional to see if oats may be safe for you.