The Great Oat Debate: Does “Gluten-Free” Really Mean Gluten-Free?

When it comes to celiac disease, few foods have caused as much controversy as the humble oat, and a now-popular technology has just made the conversation even more complicated.

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When it comes to celiac disease, few foods have caused as much controversy as the humble oat.

Oats are naturally gluten-free, but they’re almost always contaminated from being farmed, stored, transported, or processed using fields and equipment that once touched gluten-containing grains (wheat, barley, and rye).

For years, the only way for someone with celiac disease to safely eat oats was to buy ones that were grown, harvested, and produced under a “purity protocol” that guaranteed they never came in contact with gluten. When oat-based food companies decided they wanted a piece of the gluten-free pie, though, they were faced with a dilemma: There are not enough purity protocol oats to meet their demand.

Enter mechanical and optical sorting, where commodity oats are fed through a machine that separates them by length, density, and color in order to remove any foreign grain (mostly wheat or barley). With the gluten-containing grains removed, the commodity oats are said to be “cleaned” and—by U.S. government standards—gluten-free.

Are they really, though?

THE PROS

Big guns in the food industry like General Mills and Quaker would not risk the negative exposure if they didn’t genuinely believe the sorting process worked. Their websites assure consumers there are various testing checkpoints to ensure the finished product contains less than 20 ppm (“parts per million,” or about 0.02%) gluten—the government standard for gluten-free.

(It turns out that several other companies producing gluten-free oat products have been using the same technology for some time now, but only recently has it gotten media attention.)

This sorting process could make gluten-free products more available and more affordable than ever, with companies like General Mills promising to keep prices constant. For someone with celiac disease who doesn’t live in a more affluent or metropolitan area, these two factors have been major obstacles in treating their disease.

Ultimately, several big celiac organizations do support the mechanical sorting of commodity oats, as long as the testing is consistent, transparent, stringent, and reliable; which of course brings up the question…is it?

THE CONS

Mechanical and optical sorting may mostly work, but the testing protocols have rendered it rather risky. As long as humans drive the process, there will be room for error, and testing has to be on point to catch it. Mere months after their gluten-free launch, General Mills recalled a number of boxes of Cheerios for cross-contact with wheat during transport. General Mills responded swiftly, but top representatives of the gluten-free community asserted that this incident was not only avoidable but a sign that testing was more lax than the company let on.

It’s not only a concern of the frequency of testing, though; the method itself has also raised questions. Quaker says it tests every sample box individually, but General Mills uses a composite or mean score. Basically, they grind up a minimum of 12 boxes, test, and average the results; if 11 of them contain 3 ppm gluten and the last contains 70 ppm, they average out to less than 10 ppm, and the lot will pass inspection. Would you want to be the unlucky celiac sufferer who gets box number 12?

Then there are the unintended consequences of the technology. When titans like PepsiCo (Quaker) and General Mills step onto the scene, the livelihood of the smaller companies that are producing purity protocol oats is threatened. Why would companies spend money on these special oats when they can just buy and sort cheap, commodity oats themselves? Pure oat sales have been declining, leaving their manufacturers questioning the future of the business. Pretty soon, celiac sufferers may not have a choice: the companies growing and using pure oats could be put plum out of business.

THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?

I wish I didn’t have to say this, but as of right now, FLOP. Look, I’m not so cynical as to think these larger companies got into the gluten-free game solely to take advantage of a “trend” and earn a quick buck, but if they don’t do this thing right, that’s exactly how it will appear. They have a huge responsibility in pioneering this technology to make sure they’ve tested and retested ad nauseam.

As of today, that testing simply isn’t there for me to recommend that anyone with a diagnosed intolerance to gluten take the chance on mechanically and optically sorted oats.

If you’d still like to incorporate oats into your diet, first check with your doctor, because even certified gluten-free oats can be problematic for a subset of people with celiac disease. Then, find a company that uses purity protocol oats to be certain that the utmost care and attention is being devoted to making sure your oats are safe to eat. These smaller companies need your support.

Gluten-free eating is not a fad; it’s a medical treatment. Every decision we make has consequences, and every decision we make matters.

Choose with care.

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