The Oat Conundrum: Are Oats Gluten-Free?

Many of the gluten-free recipes we have here at The Kitchn contain oats. We rely quite a lot, in fact, on oats and oat flour when cooking for friends who are gluten-intolerant. But, as you may have noticed, there is some question about oats and whether they are actually safe for gluten-intolerant folks.

So here's the big question: Are oats truly gluten-free? Read on for the answer.

The short answer is YES — non-contaminated, pure oats are gluten-free. They are safe for most people with gluten-intolerance.

The main problem with oats in gluten-free eating is contamination. Most commercial oats are processed in facilities that also process wheat, barley, and rye. The gluten in these ingredients can contaminate oats, and the nature of most gluten intolerances is that even a trace amount of gluten can cause severe discomfort. So that box of Quaker Oats? Probably not gluten-free.

Contamination can also happen in the field, when oats are grown side-by-side with fields of wheat. And contamination can vary widely between batches of processed oats — even oats grown and processed in the same place. So one box of conventional oats may be OK for one gluten-intolerant person, but then the next box might give them a terrible reaction. It's best to completely avoid conventionally grown and processed oats when cooking for a gluten-free friend.

However, gluten-free oats are widely available, and they are among the least expensive gluten-free grains and ingredients. Personally I love using gluten-free oats in recipes; they are a familiar ingredient, when compared to the potato starch and xanthan gum, and it's so much easier to develop a recipe using oats.

But there is one last twist on this topic. Notice we said that oats are safe for most people with gluten-intolerance? There is a small segment of gluten-intolerant people who also have a hard time with oats. There is some argument about this; some researchers believe that all reactions come from trace contamination in the oats, while others have found evidence that a small percentage of people also have sensitivity to oats.

So, two main points to know about gluten-free eating and oats:

1. Ask your gluten-free friends whether they are sensitive to oats. When cooking for someone with allergies or sensitivities it's always best to communicate and ask questions as much as possible anyway. So be sure to ask about oats.

2. Buy gluten-free oats. And if you do cook for people who eat gluten-free always make sure to buy and use gluten-free oats in your baking and cooking.

If you eat gluten-free and are struggling with breakfast in particular, remember oats! Steel-cut oats can be such a great breakfast — so nourishing and satisfying. Here are three ways to make them:

How To Cook Steel-Cut Oats for Breakfast the Night Before
No-Cook Overnight Steel-Cut Oats
Overnight Oatmeal with Apricots and Buttermilk

Readers, do you eat or cook gluten-free? What has your experience been with oats?

Related: Can You Recommend Good Gluten-Free Resources?

(Image: Faith Durand)