Why Are Some Oats Labeled Gluten-Free? Aren't They Always Gluten-Free?

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We had a good question from a reader earlier this week. She asked why recipes now often specify gluten-free oatmeal. Isn't oatmeal always gluten-free? I think this is a common confusion; these days many (but not all) packages of oats and oatmeal are labeled as "gluten-free."

The reason for gluten-free labeling may be familiar to those of you who avoid gluten, but I thought it was worth an answer from an expert.

Technically, pure oats are completely gluten-free; they don't contain gluten proteins at all. The key word here, though, is pure.

I asked the good folks at Bob's Red Mill why oats need to be labeled gluten-free, and they had two reasons why.

  1. Oats are often grown (and transported) with wheat: While oats are inherently gluten-free, conventional oats may be grown in conditions that introduce gluten. Oats are often grown as rotational crops with wheat and transported in shared trucks, making it hard to ensure those oats are truly gluten free.
  2. Oats are often processed on the same equipment as wheat: Wheat berries and oat groats are incredibly similar, making it challenging for basic grain cleaning equipment to remove all wheat from a crop of oats.

So, the issue to avoid is contamination. There isn't some special gluten-free variety of oats; they are designated this way because their processing has kept them free of wheat contamination. "Choosing gluten-free tested oats," they told me, "makes certain that the consumer is getting a truly gluten-free product."

It is worth pointing out, too, that while oats do not contain gluten, a small percentage of people with celiac also have a sensitivity to the proteins in oats.

More on Oats at The Kitchn

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