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Oats and gluten: A source of confusion and the problem for people with coeliac diesease

Published: 11 Apr 2017

By Joe Lederman (Managing Principal, FoodLegal)

© Lawmedia Pty Ltd, April 2017

Attention has been given by industry in the United States to the idea of “gluten free” oat products, and how to minimise the impact for those with coeliac disease.  However, this article considers the science in relation to the allergenicity of oats, and considers whether the emphasis on an absence of gluten is misguided.  This article also highlights the Australian regulatory position as a model for others to consider.

The problem with gluten

Gluten must be avoided by people with coeliac disease.  People with the disease have an adverse reaction to gluten, as it interferes with their immune system and causes small bowel damage.  A label that says “gluten free” is an indicator that that food can be consumed safely by someone with coeliac disease.

An article in the online publication Food Dive published on 23 March 2017 has suggested that agreement by the Gluten Intolerance Group and the American Association of Cereal Chemists to propose an industry-wide definition for “gluten free oats” merely requires protection of the oat supply chain from contamination at any point, since oats are naturally free from gluten.

If there is no gluten present in oats, does this mean a person with coeliac disease is able to consume oats without risk? The answer is no.

The problem with oats specifically

While uncontaminated oats may be free from gluten, all oats nevertheless still contain the avenin protein.  Scientific studies have found that this protein can be toxic to those with coeliac disease.  Not all people with the disease will react adversely to avenin, and the toxicity may not be as severe as that from gluten.  However, there is still a risk that many people with coeliac disease will have an adverse reaction to oats, even if they are “gluten free” oats.

Why are oats grouped with gluten under Australia’s food regulations?

The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (Food Standards Code), which is a Federal legislative instrument with the full force of law, has a definition of “gluten”  that deems this legislated definition to include “the main protein in oats”.  Furthermore, Schedule 4 of the Food Standards Code provides that one of the requirements in making a “gluten free” claim is that the food must not contain any oats or oat products.

In Australia, oats and products containing oats therefore cannot be sold as gluten free – even if the oat supply chain is absolutely 100% free of any gluten contamination.  This is to be contrasted with the US approach, which limits the definition of gluten to the proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley and crossbreeds of those grains (but not oats).  As such, it is possible for US oats (and products that contain oats) to be marketed as “gluten free” as long as there is no gluten contamination in the supply chain.

The concerns of people with coeliac disease

While it is understandable for manufacturers and marketers to focus on the technical absence of gluten in oats, this will not eliminate the potentially harmful effects for those with coeliac disease who mistakenly believe that the problem with oats is gluten.  Naturally, there is no gluten but when it comes to oats, providing a gluten free solution is not the same as providing a solution that is safe for people with coeliac disease.  The real issue is the avenin protein present in the oats.

Australian regulators focused on the impacts on those with coeliac disease, and have therefore characterised oats as being in the same category as gluten.  This may be a safer approach to avoid the inadvertent consumption of a food by someone relying on the gluten “free claim” and thereby causing the consumer to suffer a toxic effect from a protein which the manufacturer knew to be in the product.  Even if the nutrition facts label for the product declared the presence of oats, the fact that a “gluten free” claim is being made concurrently may be true but misleading and unsafe in practice.