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What Are Gluten-Free Oats?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 25 July 2017
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Many health experts believe that oats in and of themselves are gluten-free. This does not automatically make them acceptable to eat for individuals who have celiac disease and those who simply have a sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Oats are easily contaminated by other grains that contain gluten, so gluten-free oats would be those that are grown and then processed in environments that are gluten-free. Some health experts argue, though, that this process would still not make oats acceptable for consumption by those with a gluten-intolerance, as oats contain a protein that in some people seems to cause an immune response similar to that of gluten.

Individuals with celiac disease face a challenge as they plan their meals each day. Omnipresent items like traditional bread, muffins, and pizza are off limits, so these individuals must build their diet from alternative foods. Ostensibly free from gluten, cheap, and easy to find, oats seem like an obvious substitute for gluten-containing grains. Yet oats sometimes cause a reaction in those with gluten sensitivities, leading some health experts to question whether gluten-free oats actually exist. Some researchers believe that this reaction is due to the contamination of otherwise gluten-free oats by gluten-containing grains, while others feel that the reaction is caused by a protein found in the oats themselves.

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This contamination may occur because oats have been grown in close proximity to a gluten-containing crop, because they have been harvested using machinery also used to harvest one of these crops, or because they have been processed in a factory that also processes one of them. For some individuals with celiac disease, oats which have been contaminated with even a trace amount of gluten can cause severe digestive upset. Some dietary experts contend, however, that avoiding such reactions is simply a matter of purchasing oats which have been grown, harvested, processed, and packaged in an environment that is fully gluten-free. In order to avoid digestive upset, these experts note, when shopping for gluten-free oats it should be assumed that products which do not carry a gluten-free designation on their packaging are not gluten-free.

Other health experts argue that even in the absence of contamination, allegedly gluten-free oats can cause an adverse reaction in individuals with gluten sensitivities. While oats do not contain gluten, these experts explain, they do contain a protein which in certain cases appears to cause an immune system response closely resembling that caused by gluten among celiac sufferers. These researchers generally agree, however, that the exact nature of this potential link between oats and gluten sensitivities is not yet fully understood. Some hold that an immune response to all types of oats occurs among a small percentage of those with gluten sensitivities, while others believe that certain strains of oats tend to cause a negative reaction among all gluten-sensitive individuals.

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