Are oats okay for coeliac's?

The great oat debate…

When it comes to oats and the gluten free diet, you’d be forgiven if you’re a little confused.

After all, sometime they are considered gluten free, other times they’re not, and mostly this distinction comes down to where you live.

Weird, huh?

To explain why, it’s important to note that ‘gluten’ is a collective term for proteins found within wheat, rye, barley and oats. Respectively, they’re known as gliadin, hordein, secalin and avenin.

Avenin, the protein found in oats, is where things get a little contentious.

It’s believed that it only triggers an immune response, and therefore a gluten-like reaction, in some people with coeliac disease.

In fact, research from Australia’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute studied 73 people with coeliac disease over a 10-year period and found that only eight per cent of participants reported a gluten-like response after consuming oats.

The difficulty is: there’s no simple way to tell if you are one of the lucky ones who can tolerate them.

And even if you are, there’s a large risk of oats being contaminated by other gluten containing grains during harvesting, milling and processing.

Furthermore, it’s not currently possible to test for the presence of gluten or the amount in the protein avenin.

For these reasons, FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) prohibit any form of oat being labelled as gluten-free in Australia or New Zealand. Consequently, oats that are grown and produced in an uncontaminated environment can only be labelled as wheat, rye and barley free.

In other countries, however, such as the US and Europe, these uncontaminated oats, that is oats which have been grown, harvested and processed away from other gluten containing grains, are considered to be gluten-free and suitable for coeliac consumption.

In Australia, it’s illegal to label any product containing oats or its derivatives as gluten free. The governing bodies do not believe there is sufficient evidence to prove these products will pose no risk to those with coeliac disease.

Overseas, you can find gluten free oats, which are uncontaminated varieties.

The bottom line?

Evidence shows that uncontaminated oats are well tolerated by most people with coeliac disease. However, for some, oat consumption can trigger a potentially harmful immune response. Please note that the absence of symptoms when consuming oats does not necessarily indicate they are safe – bowel damage can still occur despite the absence of symptoms.

No matter where you live, it’s worthwhile to undergo a medically supervised oat challenge if you wish to include oat products in your diet. The Australian Coeliac Society explains this means individuals should undergo a biopsy before adding oats to the diet and repeat the procedure after consuming them for three months to assess whether the immune response, and therefore damage has occurred.