Q and A: Eating Oats

Q: Is it safe to eat oats if you have celiac disease?

A: Yes, eating oats that are labeled “gluten-free certified” appears to be safe for the majority of people living with celiac disease. However, at this time, the “oat issue” is not fully understood by celiac experts and researchers, who are still working to clarify the relationship.

Here’s the concern: While oats do not contain gluten, they do contain a protein fragment called avenin that has some protein sequences similar to the sequences found in gluten. For the vast majority of people with celiac disease, avenin is perfectly safe and will not trigger an immune response. However, there is some evidence that a small percentage of people with celiac do react to avenin — and unfortunately, to date there is no test available to determine who is sensitive.

Even for the vast majority of people who do not react to avenin, everyday oats are not safe. Oats are often contaminated with gluten-containing grains like wheat during growth, transport, storage or packaging. For this reason, it’s very important that people with celiac disease purchase and eat oats or oat products that are specifically labeled “certified gluten-free.” These oats are grown on dedicated oat farms, processed in a gluten-free facility, and tested for gluten to eliminate the risk of cross-contamination. If you are dining out at a restaurant, you should assume the oats are not certified gluten-free unless they are specifically labeled as such.

Bottom line?

If you’ve been newly diagnosed with celiac, incorporate oats with caution. Most doctors recommend completely eliminating oats from your diet (along with wheat, rye and barley) for at least one year. Once the condition is fully under control, you can consider adding “certified-gluten free” oats back into your diet with your doctor’s approval. I recommend limiting portions to no more than 1/2 cup dry oats per day for adults and no more than 1/4 cup for children. Keep in mind that the fiber in oats may cause digestive symptoms, which can sometimes be mistaken for an immune reaction. If you do react negatively to eating oats, hold off on eating them again until you have discussed the issue with your doctor or nutritionist.