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Are oats safe to eat?

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Oats contain avenin, a different type of gluten from gliadin, the problem protein in wheat and others in rye and barley. It has been found that some coeliacs react in a similar way to oats as they do to wheat. In Europe and North America the main cause of concern with oats has been that of cross-contamination. However, Bob’s Red Mill, a US company that grows oats on dedicated fields and processes them in a separate gluten-free facility (along with over 70 other gluten-free products, including oat flour) acknowledges that ‘a small percentage of people with coeliac disease may not tolerate even the purest of oats’.

There is a difference of opinion between the Australian and European medical community, with the former taking a more conservative approach recommending that oats are excluded from a gluten-free diet until more extensive research is conducted. As a result, the Australian Food Standards Code presently doesn’t allow oats to be labelled as gluten-free even when they are grown and processed in facilities run as carefully as Bob’s Red Mill – they must be labeled wheat-free instead.

Whilst the Australian Medical Advisory Committee note that oats are generally well tolerated by coeliacs, they stress that the absence of a reaction to oats should not be taken as meaning that they do not cause intestinal damage as this can only be known for certain after invasive testing of an individual by gastroscopy and small bowel biopsy after three months of regular consumption of uncontaminated oats. As most people wouldn’t want to submit to this, it may be a matter of personal judgment and careful trial for individuals to decide for themselves.

It has been found that maize (corn) may also be problematic. Scientists at the university of Milan have discovered that maize prolamins contain amino acid sequences that resemble wheat gluten peptides and these can cause problems for some coeliacs.

Are there any grains that are safe for coeliacs to eat?

Unless they suffer cross-contamination issues, millet, sorghum, white, black and wild rice, as well as quinoa, millet and amaranth, are all gluten-free. Despite the suffix ‘wheat,’ buckwheat, which has a nutty texture and taste and is nutritionally dense, is safe to eat.

Photograph by Jeff Engel.