If you’re confused by gluten-free eating plans and whether oatmeal has a place in your diet, you’re not alone. In the past decade, gluten-free foods have come to dominate the healthy eating market. Recent statistics cited in The Guardian show that foods labeled “gluten free” had a 12.6 percent increase in sales in 2016, which translates to $3.5 billion in worldwide sales for that year alone. But on their own, gluten free labels can be perplexing, especially if you’re just curious or new to educating yourself on the subject.
The problem is that gluten-free products like oatmeal are marketed so broadly that it can be difficult to determine which specific foods are appropriate for people with different health conditions and whether, given the state of your health, it’s actually in your best interest to eat a gluten-free diet in the first place.
Oatmeal: A Close-Up Look at a Complicated Food
First of all, it’s important to recognize that both oatmeal and gluten free are both very on-trend terms when it comes to what foods are being marketed to women right now. For example, an article featured on the AdAge website deconstructs an extremely nostalgic ad campaign that Quaker Oats ran in 2015. The campaign was created specifically for a female demographic and seemed to say, “Oats are for the proud and healthy daughter, student, businesswoman, and mother in all of us!” At the same time, everyone from celebrities (the Brady-Bündchens and Anne Hathaway to name a few) to researchers have been promoting the benefits of gluten-free diets, which sometimes recognize oatmeal as a good option and other times don’t. It’s no wonder confusion has arisen over this seemingly simple food!
So, is oatmeal gluten free?
The short answer: Yes. A thorough, meaningful answer, however, is more involved and actually has nothing to do with the oats themselves, but the method by which oats are harvested and processed. Joanne Rankin is a registered dietitian who specializes in gut health and food sensitivities. As she explains, “The ‘gluten-free oat’ concept can be a little confusing, because pure oats are naturally gluten free. The issue is with contamination with wheat, rye, or barley during growing, harvest, transport, and processing.”
Keeping oats completely isolated is costly and time consuming, and it requires a facility that is also completely free of cross-contamination with other grains. An oatmeal product must have less than 20 parts per million (PPM) of gluten to meet the requirements for gluten free labeling, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.
Who benefits from a gluten-free diet?
Despite the fact that gluten-free foods are so aggressively marketed to women in particular, it’s very important to recognize that going gluten free won’t necessarily benefit people who do not have a diagnosed gluten allergy or sensitivity. Rankin emphasizes this point, saying, “There is no rationale for someone in good health to avoid gluten. Consuming as wide a variety of foods as possible is one of the cornerstones of a healthy diet, and eliminating gluten does limit the variety in the diet.”
Make sure to direct any questions you have to your doctor or dietitian. They may decide to run tests that can determine whether a gluten-free diet is a good fit for you.
The Importance of Seeing a Medical Health Professional
In the age of the internet, it’s incredibly easy to self-diagnose when a certain set of symptoms you’re experiencing reads like an identical match to those of a potentially serious health issue. At all times—but especially when it comes to food sensitivities—it’s imperative to consult with a medical professional before making major changes in your diet. You might be convinced gluten is the issue, but it could be something less obvious. In a blog post titled “It might not be the gluten,” Rankin cautions against blaming gluten for all your health issues and instead puts the focus on fructan, a long carbohydrate chain found in foods that contain gluten. She advises:
“For some people, fructans are difficult to digest in the small intestine. When this is the case, the fructan carbohydrates are free to move down to the large intestine. In the large intestine the bacteria which naturally live there use these fructans as their food source. In the process of digesting the fructan molecules, a process called fermentation, these bacteria release gas and many tiny molecules. This gas and the large number of small molecules can trigger bloating and diarrhea, and/or constipation.”
She suggests undertaking an elimination diet low in FODMAPs under the care of a doctor or dietitian to see if this has an impact on your symptoms.
What the heck is a FODMAP?
According to FODMAPFriendly.com, a website that offers a wealth of information on the subject along with dietary advice, FODMAPs are “a collection of short chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols found in foods naturally or as food additives. FODMAPs include fructose (when in excess of glucose), fructans, galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), lactose and polyols (eg. sorbitol and mannitol).”
In particular, sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol, maltitol syrup, lactitol, erythritol, and isomalt are common sources of digestive trouble that can be found in everything from chewing gum to ice cream. It makes sense to think your food sensitivities stem from gluten, because sugar alcohols mimic and aggravate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes serious gluten intolerance. Celiac disease can cause long-lasting damage to the small intestine that can prevent it from absorbing necessary nutrients. Symptoms of celiac disease can range from mild abdominal discomfort to vomiting and diarrhea. Celiac disease can have very damaging effects on the body if not treated properly. Diagnosis usually involves a series of blood tests and often includes a biopsy via an endoscopy. People who have celiac disease must avoid gluten at all costs, because ingesting even a few crumbs of gluten-containing food can cause permanent damage to their small intestines.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS is a digestive problem that can cause cramping, bloating, diarrhea, excessive gas, and constipation. Unlike celiac disease, IBS doesn’t automatically suggest a gluten sensitivity, although its symptoms can be managed by paying attention to foods that trigger symptom flares.
Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease that can have an effect on any part of the body involved with the digestive process. The symptoms of Crohn’s can include severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. Like IBS, Crohn’s doesn’t directly stem from an intolerance to gluten and can be somewhat controlled by being aware of inflammatory foods that can cause an attack.
So, how does oatmeal fit into your diet if you have celiac, IBS, or Crohn’s?
Oats that have been labeled gluten free have gone through rigorous testing to ensure they live up to the gluten free label. Gluten-free oats have been processed in a facility where the opportunity for cross-contamination with rye, wheat, or barley has been reduced to zero. Oats are safe for people with celiac disease to enjoy as long as they’re labeled gluten free, although Rankin warns to proceed with caution if oats aren’t already a part of your diet.
“Canadian Celiac Association recommends that they not be included in the diet a person with newly diagnosed celiac disease until they have healed. Healing can be monitored via tissue transglutaminase (tTG) blood levels, which gradually decrease as the intestinal villi re-grow. Once the tTG is normal, gluten-free oats can be added slowly, starting with portions of 1/4 cup uncooked oats, and gradually increasing as tolerated,” she says.
If you have IBS or Crohn’s, Rankin actually recommends eating off-the-shelf oats and not worrying about looking for a gluten free label. She says:
“Oatmeal is safe for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease,” and goes on to say, “It is actually desirable because it is an excellent source of soluble fiber for regulating bowel function AND it is a source of a phytochemical, avenanthramide, which has anti-inflammatory properties.”
An Abundance of Oatmeal Options
Gluten free or not, there are several options when it comes to choosing the oatmeal that’s best for you. One of the big upsides of eating oats is that because they all come from the whole grain, regardless of how you decide to eat them, they maintain the same nutritional benefits they have in their original form.
This includes powerful anti-inflammatory properties; high levels of soluble fiber; plenty of antioxidants; an abundance of thiamin, phosphorous, and magnesium; and more than three times the daily recommended intake of manganese, which is crucial for helping your blood clot when you’re injured and aids in calcium absorption.
Whole Oat Groats
Groats can be found in health food and specialty shops and online. Groats are oats in their purest form (unless of course, you’re eating freshly harvested raw oats). A groat is the technical term for the kernel of a grain, and these takes the longest to cook out of all the different varieties of oats available.
So, how about savory groats with a veg or two for incorporating oats outside the breakfast hour? Martha Stewart’s savory oat groats and kale (and carrots, onion, leek, garlic, and parm) is intended to be served with a little spritz of lemon on top. The chewy texture and combination of flavors will have you falling in love with oats even at dinnertime.
Steel Cut Oats
Steel cut oats are groats that have been chopped into smaller pieces using a very sharp metal blade. Once cooked, steel cut oats have an irresistibly toothsome bite and creamy texture. Steel cut oats can take up to half an hour to fully cook, which may seem daunting for an early morning meal. Instead of cooking your steel cut oats when you get up, make a big batch at the beginning of the week and heat them up in the microwave or over the stovetop each morning. Simply reconstitute the oats with milk or water, stirring to make sure the concoction doesn’t burn.
Or, if you’ve got a crock pot, set it before bed and get ready to wake up to to the delightful smells of pumpkin pie spice and vanilla with this overnight slow cooker pumpkin steel cut oat recipe from Epicurious.
Scottish oats are similar to steel cut oats except instead of being cut with a steel blade, they’re ground into smaller pieces that, when cooked, have a super-velvety texture similar to that of porridge. Scottish oats can also be cooked in big batches and eaten throughout the week to save you time.
Looking to give your breakfast a shot of something extra? Try Scottish oats with fresh cream and whisky, a recipe from South Africa’s leading food magazine, Food & Home Entertaining.
Perhaps the most common type of oat, rolled oats are steel cut oats that have been steamed and rolled out into flakes. Rolled oats are an especially attractive option because they still retain some chewiness but can be cooked in under 10 minutes. Rolled oats can also be used for recipe-free delicious overnight oats, which can be assembled the night before and eaten on the go or at work.
If you want to follow a cook-free overnight recipe, consider this vegan, peanutbuttery goodness from Minimalist Baker.
Instant oats are rolled oats that have been cut into even smaller pieces, which is why they cook almost instantaneously (hence the name). But be warned that the texture of your oatmeal might suffer when using instant oats (you’ve probably heard or made a comparison or two to glue or wallpaper paste when it comes to instant oats). Also be sure to read the label if you’re buying flavored instant oats; these are often packed with sugar or artificial sweeteners and are more of a dessert than a healthy breakfast.
This ultimate guide to homemade instant oatmeal packets from Don’t Waste the Crumbs outlines fruit-to-oat ratios, serving sizes, and even how you can use powdered milk to get the creamy texture of store-bought instant oats while still maintaining control of what winds up in your breakfast.
No Clear Answer at the End of the Day
It’s obvious that gluten free labeling is a complicated issue, especially when it comes to oatmeal. Before undertaking any changes in your diet, such as going gluten free, it’s absolutely imperative that you talk to a healthcare professional first.
If you’ve got the green light to consume gluten, then by all means do so to ensure healthy variety in your diet and access to the nutritional benefits an array of foods has to offer.
Keep in mind that IBS and Crohn’s disease can often be managed with dietary choices that have nothing to do with going gluten free and that unless your doctor says otherwise, oatmeal can be a soluble fiber-rich and heart healthy fit into your meal plan. Finally, if you have celiac disease, oats can be for you too. Just be sure to consult with your doctor, commit to buying an overtly labeled gluten-free variety, and follow the doctor’s orders in terms of incorporating oats and other foods slowly so you can take the best possible care of your digestive tract and your whole self.