THE OAT ISSUE – to be an allergen or not to be an allergen

Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, founder of the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards and trustee of Action Against Allergy.

Back in August (1915) Ruth of What Allergy? was at a judging session for the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards at which the subject of oats arose – are they in fact an allergen and are they actually gluten free? But, after a lengthy discussion, she ended up more confused than when she started.  And she is in good company.

The 2014 regulations defining allergens and gluten containing cereals (spool down to page 11) say:

The 14 allergens listed in Annex II (as amended by Commission Delegated Regulation No. 78/2014) are recognised across Europe as the most common ingredients or processing aids causing food allergies and intolerances…….The Annex II allergens are:

 Cereals containing gluten namely wheat (such as spelt and Khorasan wheat), rye, barley, oats and their hybridised strains and products thereof.

OK, well that is pretty clear then. Oats are an allergen and they are a gluten-containing cereal.

Really? But if so, what about all of those products made from ‘gluten-free oats’ which are suitable for coeliacs? Well………

As most coeliacs will know, the protein fractions in wheat, barley and rye that cause their problems are gliadin in wheat, hordein in barley and secalin in rye – although there are now some questions being asked as to whether some other proteins might not also be involved. Oats do not contain any of those but they do contain a very similar protein called avenin. It was long thought that avenin was so similar to gliadin that coeliacs should also avoid it. However, research from Finland in the 1990s suggested that actually, avenin would not cause problems for coeliacs and that therefore they could eat oats. This was very welcome news as being able to include oats in the diet is not only of nutritional benefit but enormously increases the range of products that a coeliac can eat.

However, these were only relatively small studies and only looked at effects over a relatively short period of time. Subsequent studies (such as this one in 2002 and this one in 2013) suggest that even over a long period, oats are safe for coeliacs, but not everyone is convinced. Medics, as is so often the case, are divided and there is now a suggestion that the allergenicity of oats and their safety as far as coeliacs are concerned,  may depend on the breed of oats. Meanwhile, support groups like Coeliac UK are wary: ‘treat with caution as super sensitive people may still react to them’.

But the main problem with oats now as far as most coeliacs are concerned is that they are so often grown in the next field to, or milled with, wheat – so the chances of wheat (and therefore gliadin) contamination are very high. So, when a company claims that oats are ‘gluten free’ what they actually mean is that they have been grown far away from any wheat and have been milled in a different facility so that the chances of contamination are extremely low – certainly under the 20 parts per million required for them to be called gluten-free under the gluten legislation of January 2012.

But hang on……. Four paras up, I said that according to the 2014 legislation, ‘allergens include cereals containing gluten namely wheat (such as spelt and Khorasan wheat), rye, barley, oats and their hybridised strains and products thereof’……

Confusion reigns within the food industry and most manufacturers are as bemused as I am.

So what is the poor gluten-intolerant consumer to do? Do oats contain gluten or don’t they? Should they eat them or shouldn’t they?

Well, for my money, I think that Coeliac UK has it about right. Being able to eat oats is very helpful for coeliacs; it genuinely does greatly enlarge the range of foods they can eat and has significant nutritional benefit. However, I think they should treat them with caution, especially if newly diagnosed. Start off by excluding them. But, once your diet and your health has stabilised, by all means try them in small quantities, making sure that you do try so-called ‘gluten-free’ oats. If you suffer no ill effects then continue to use them, gradually upping your consumption, but keeping a weather eye on your health to make sure that the oats do not have a cumulatively adverse effect on it. If you are fine, then you are in business and can include gluten-free oats as a normal part of your diet. If not, you should exclude them altogether or at least dramatically decrease your use of them.

And as far as the labelling goes and whether or not they are highlighted as allergens? Don’t worry about it as, going by the book, very few people are likely to get it right! Just be sure you notice whether oats (be they in bold or not) are in the ingredients and if so, when they are flagged as being gluten-free oats.

Good luck – and enjoy the porridge!

This article first appeared as a blog in and was subsequently published in Allergy Newsletter No.117, Summer 2016.