What is gluten?
Oatmeal is a nutritious, versatile food rich in fiber and important vitamins. Oats can decrease your risk of heart disease, lower your cholesterol, prevent cancer, and aid in weight loss. It’s clear that oatmeal is a healthy breakfast option, but you might still wonder: is oatmeal gluten-free?
Gluten is a protein that acts as a binding agent, making it a particularly helpful ingredient in bread and baked goods. You’ll find gluten in grains like barley, wheat, and spelt, and in many foods with high nutritional value.
There’s nothing inherently bad about gluten, but problems can arise during the digestion process. Protease is a digestive enzyme that processes proteins, but it can’t fully process gluten — that means the undigested gluten travels to your small intestine, and for some people, this can prompt a negative autoimmune response or other unwanted side effects.
Should you avoid gluten?
Although the popularity of gluten-free diets has skyrocketed in recent years, the truth is that gluten has no negative effect on most people and can easily be absorbed by the body. That said, you should avoid gluten if you have any of the following:
- Celiac disease. Gluten-free diets are the primary treatment for people with celiac disease, a chronic hereditary autoimmune disease that affects approximately 1% of the human population. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, it can cause sickness, inflammation, and harm to the small intestine that can lead to long-term digestive issues.
- Wheat allergies. People with wheat allergies can experience unpleasant symptoms like hives, swelling, or nausea after eating gluten.
- Gluten sensitivity. Many people don’t have celiac disease, but after eating gluten they still experience symptoms like discomfort and diarrhea after consuming gluten.
For people with celiac disease, avoiding gluten is an essential part of avoiding serious health issues. People with milder reactions to gluten can also consider eliminating gluten to lead healthier lives. However, if you don't have a gluten sensitivity you might want to keep eating it — it can be difficult and expensive to maintain a healthy gluten-free diet, and many people find themselves gaining weight and developing other health issues.
Is oatmeal always gluten-free?
If you’re making your oatmeal from scratch with pure, uncontaminated oats, the answer is yes: oatmeal is gluten-free. Pure oats don’t contain gluten, but that doesn't mean all oatmeal is gluten-free — in fact, many brands of oatmeal do contain gluten.
Even though oats are naturally gluten-free, it’s easy for them to become contaminated when they’re grown in the same facility as grains that do contain gluten. This is called “commingling,” and it occurs when gluten grains get mixed up with oats during any stage of processing.
How to know your oats are gluten-free
With so many products on the market, it can be tough to trust that your oats are really gluten-free — that’s why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) created official gluten regulations in 2013. Now, there are protocols in place that make it easier for you to identify gluten-free goods and standards that help manufacturers produce them.
Currently, oat processors use two methods to ensure their oats are certified gluten-free.
- Purity protocol. This strict method ensures a lack of gluten by strictly monitoring every stage of the oat’s journey. This includes regular field inspections by third-party inspectors, specific storage for gluten-free crops only, and dedicated milling equipment.
- Mechanical sorting. Once oats have arrived at a processing facility, mechanical sorting begins. This process involves trained personnel identifying stray gluten grains mixed in with the oats and using carefully calibrated machines to remove them.
Even if oat processors use one or both of the above methods, the Gluten-Free Certification Organization won’t grant oats gluten-free status unless they contain a gluten content of fewer than 10 parts per million and meet 80 requirements involving facility restrictions, cleaning protocols, and supplier approval.
The FDA states that food cannot be advertised as gluten-free unless it contains none of the following:
- Wheat, barley, rye, and any combinations or crossbreeds of these grains
- An ingredient derived from any of the above grains that hasn’t been processed to remove gluten
- An ingredient (processed or not) containing more than 20 parts per million of gluten
In 2017, the FDA analyzed 702 samples of 250 “gluten-free” products and found only one that did not comply with regulations. The product has since been recalled. With such strict standards, it’s safe to assume your oats are gluten-free if they claim to be.
Health benefits of oatmeal
Once you’ve got the gluten-free oats in your cupboard, you can start enjoying the many health benefits of oatmeal.
Oats are a great source of thiamine, phosphorus, zinc, and magnesium. Oats include beta-glucans, a form of soluble fiber that can boost your immune system and help you stay full for longer — a plus if you’re looking to lose weight. Beta-glucans may also prevent spikes in blood sugar, meaning oatmeal can be a good option for people with diabetes.
There are no health differences between rolled oats and steel-cut oats, but keep an eye on instant oatmeal — it may contain added sugars or other ingredients that make it less healthy.
Your gluten-free diet
Oatmeal can be an excellent choice when going gluten-free. Look for oats that are specifically labeled “gluten-free” to ensure your oats weren’t exposed to gluten and you won’t be, either.
Keep in mind that some people with celiac disease react to uncontaminated oats, too, so they should proceed with caution and speak with a healthcare professional before adding oatmeal to the menu.
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Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Beyond Celiac: "Are Oats Gluten-Free?", "The Gluten-Free Diet."
Celiac Disease Foundation: "What is Gluten?", "What is Celiac Disease?"
Cleveland Clinic: "Wheat Allergy."
Gluten-Free Certification Organization: "Definition of the 'Purity Protocol' for Producing Gluten-Free Oats."
Gluten Intolerance Group: "Are Oats and Oat Flour Gluten-Free?"
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Gluten: A Benefit or Harm to the Body?"
Johns Hopkins Medicine: "What Is Gluten and What Does It Do?"
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Definition & Facts for Celiac Disease."
U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Gluten and Food Labeling."
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