Brief history of oats & Gluten Free Watchdog’s evolving opinionTricia Thompson
Last week Gluten Free Watchdog issued an updated statement on oats. As a reminder it reads:
“In early January of 2022, Gluten Free Watchdog issued a statement warning the community about supply chain issues with oats. At Gluten Free Watchdog we have seen an increase in oats testing with quantifiable gluten either at/above 20 ppm OR above the level of gluten allowed by their certifying organization. At this time (April, 2023), Gluten Free Watchdog cannot recommend any brand of gluten-free oats. This includes products that are certified gluten-free or made using purity protocol oats. We will issue an update when the situation warrants.”
Many of you reached out with questions. Thank you.
First and foremost, everyone with celiac disease or a gluten-related disorder must make their own decision whether to eat gluten-free oats and what brands to eat. The choices made will undoubtedly be informed by all available information. Information from Gluten Free Watchdog is only one piece of the puzzle.
By way of background…
Traditional oats are highly likely to contain errant gluten-containing grain. I first tested oats in 2004 before purity protocol gluten-free oats were readily available. The results were published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature (Thompson T. Gluten contamination of commercial oat products in the United States. N Engl J Med. 2004;351:2021-2022). As you can see from the table pasted below, the level of gluten varied between and within brands. This level of gluten is one reason why people with celiac disease were discouraged from eating oats.
Purity protocol gluten-free oats became available around the same time these results were published. This was an amazing accomplishment by a small number of farmers. Cross contact was significantly decreased by controlling everything from the seed that was planted to the equipment used for harvesting to the plant used for processing. For many years, purity protocol oats were synonymous with gluten-free oats. Much later, oats that were “cleaned” of gluten-containing grain on the back end of production via mechanical and optical sorting, arrived on the scene. One familiar brand using sorted oats is Cheerios.
Historically, at Gluten Free Watchdog we have been supportive of certain carefully vetted suppliers and manufacturers using only purity protocol oats, and to a much lesser extent mechanically and optically sorted oats (i.e., Quaker gluten-free oats).
Relatively recently, an increased number of oat products assessed by Gluten Free Watchdog have tested with quantifiable gluten, including products testing above 20 parts per million or products testing above levels allowed by their certifying organizations. Some of these results are available on the homepage (e.g., GF Harvest, Trader Joe’s, Safe and Fair).
These results are concerning. Testing oats for gluten cross contact is difficult. This is because stray wheat or barley grain will not be evenly distributed within a given amount of oats. This is why when the lab tests oats for gluten, we ask them to test following the oat protocol recommended by the assay manufacturer, R-Biopharm. This means a larger sample of oats is ground (200 grams) and larger extractions (1 gram) are tested. Undoubtedly though, some cross contact that may be present in the entire lot of oats, is slipping through the cracks.
Imagine for a minute that you made a batch of sugar cookie mix. Somehow, despite your best efforts, a chocolate chip falls into the dough. You could take multiple samples of the dough, look through each one, and not find the chocolate chip. Even if you were able to put the dough in a blender and try to evenly distribute the chocolate chip, this would be difficult to accomplish.
What we are seeing with some of our testing may be indicative of larger issues. As of now, Gluten Free Watchdog cannot recommend any brand of gluten-free oats. This is a fluid situation. Updates will be issued.
If you are interested in reading more about oats, 48 articles on oats are available on GFWD at https://www.glutenfreewatchdog.org/news/category/gluten-free-oats/. My guess is, many more will be written.
A note about me (Tricia Thompson, Founder, Gluten Free Watchdog, LLC): I am a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition. For better or worse, oats have been a main professional focus for 26 years. The first article I ever had published in the peer reviewed scientific literature was in 1997 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The title—Do oats belong in a gluten-free diet? The first information I had published on the level of gluten cross contact in oats was in 2004 in the New England Journal of Medicine. If you are interested in reading any of these articles, please let me know. Complete citations are available in my curriculum vitae https://www.glutenfreewatchdog.org/news/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/CurriculumVitae2023doc.pdf
Thank you to this excellent, detailed response and your decades of dedication to the gluten-free community! We (the community) would not be where we are today without your contributions. You are one of the OG Gluten-free Rockstars. 😎
Thank you FOR…not to.
I do my best proof reading AFTER I click send/submit/post. 😂
Thank you, Al. Goodness, you always make me laugh!
Just to clarify, does this recommendation apply to all Oat milk brands as well?
Currently, GFWD cannot recommend any brand of gluten-free oats (and by extension, products made from gluten-free oats). We continue to test oat milks. You must make your own decision whether to use gluten-free oat milk and what brands to use. Information from Gluten Free Watchdog is only one piece of the puzzle.
Thank you so much for all your hard work! I’m wondering if you ever test any Canadian companies? Only Oats here in Canada says they’re what I would imagine is purity protocol for their oats. I’m also guessing that we also need to avoid any GF oat product like Made Good, etc? My son can’t do dairy or gluten and hasn’t been able to eat any high FODMAP food for almost a year and Made Good are some if his safest snacks. If we have to cut them out now he won’t really have much. I wonder why they’re so contaminated now?
Hi Carrie, You are in the best position to make decisions on the food your son eats given your specific situation. While GFWD can’t recommend any brand of gluten-free oats at this time, our statement is not “don’t eat gluten-free oats.”
Regarding Only Oats–Are they back on the market in Canada?
This is unfortunate, as oats contain many good substances that are good for health & digestive health and hard to find in other foods.
Oats have been a big focus for cross-contamination due to their position as part of many American diets:
– Rich in vitamins and minerals, especially manganese , B1, B5
– Soluble fiber, like beta-glucan, which can reduce LDL cholesterol, feed good bacteria, provide blood sugar control
From a dietary perspective, what should Celiacs replace oat consumption with that offers these same benefits?
– Buckwheat is a pretty healthy grain, but seems like it is subject to the same cross-contamination risk as Oats because of where it is grown. I would like more attention put onto this.
– Rice is nutritionally void, high GI and filled with arsenic.
Grains are at risk of cross contact and this is why it is highly recommended that folks with celiac disease and gluten-related disorders eat products labeled gluten-free. Oats are especially prone to cross contact, including in finished products. This is due in part to similarities in appearance with gluten-containing grain, especially barley. Fortunately, other grains are not similar in appearance with oats and are more easily sorted. Millet, teff, and sorghum all may work well as hot cereals.
There are some purity protocol manufacturers previously recommended by GFWD that have not had any tests showing gluten contamination by GFWD. I understand this may be due to random chance , but given their protocols, and no published tests to the contrary, is there reason to believe that they are unsafe?
Additional information/test findings (not yet posted) raised my level of concern and caused me to issue the statement, “At this time (April, 2023), Gluten Free Watchdog cannot recommend any brand of gluten-free oats. This includes products that are certified gluten-free or made using purity protocol oats.” Please refer back to the second email sent to subscribers last week for more information.
Will those testing be published soon? I get purity protocol oats from bay state milling via my coop. I’ve never had an issues with them – do you le additional testing yet publish include bay state?
We are continuing to test oats. Do you know if the oats you purchase from Bay State Milling via your co-op are available via mail order? Also, you must make your own decision whether to eat gluten-free oats and what brands to eat based on your particular situation. Information from Gluten Free Watchdog is only one piece of the puzzle.
This is certainly disappointing. I try to minimize my use of oats, but I do eat small amounts regularly on the theory that they may have some nutrition in common with wheat. Can anyone recommend a different grain or pseudo-grain that might have similar nutrition? Quinoa?
I have lots of respect and appreciation for Ms. Thompson and the work she does. Giving us information that we don’t really want to have is exactly what a good scientist does. Many kudos for her good work!
Thank you, Catherine. I will try to post nutritional information for millet, teff, sorghum, buckwheat, and quinoa soon.
¿Es la avenina, proteina de la avena, tóxica para algunos celíacos? ¿Hay investigaciones sobre la reacción que genera la avenina en los celíacos?
Regarding oat avenin and celiac disease, the article that first brought this issue to our attention is available for free at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15526039/.
I have been in contact with McCanns. The company was sold and is now based in the United States where the Irish oats are processed in a non restricted manner. Thus they are no longer gluten free.
They were really a tasty morning ritual but sadly I won’t be eating them anymore.
To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a gluten-free version of McCann’s available in the US but please correct me if I am wrong.
Thank you for your tireless work on our behalf!
This is sad news, as overnight oats are my breakfast meal 5 days a week (I’ve been using Gluten-Free Prairie since the GF Harvest issue cropped up).
Is there a safe alternative to oats for a recipe like that?
Hi Paula, please remember, while GFWD can’t recommend any brand of gluten-free oats at this time, our statement is not “don’t eat gluten-free oats.” You must make your own decision whether to eat gluten-free oats and what brands to eat based on your particular situation. Information from Gluten Free Watchdog is only one piece of the puzzle.
Muchas gracias Tricia por la investigación sobre la avena y la reacción a esta de algunos celíacos (casi la mitad, de los que participaron en la investigación). Muchas gracias, también, por los datos de la avena contaminada con trigo. Con estos datos no arriesgaría mi intestino para comer avena. Habiendo tantos cereales y pseudicereales sin gluten ¿Porque comer justo avena?
Thank you very much for this wisdom. And for all of your hard work and always working through things from a scientific/evidence based place.
Thanks so much for your kind words, Carrie.
Endangered Species chocolates, an entirely Gluten-Free Certified Organization (GFCO) company product line — one of fewer than 5 chocolate bar brands that I have found — started a production line of oat milk chocolate bars. I believe that this has caused me months of agony without being able to identify the source until recently. (I am on an elimination diet, including the removal of any high FODMAP foods that I was previously eating such as garlic, onions, pears, apples, and I have removed the Endangered Species chocolate bar product (my beloved 72% dark chocolate) from my diet entirely, to trace the source(s) of a re-emergence of certain disabling gluten symptoms. Due to how restrictive my dietary choices are and how vigilant I am with my raw (non-prepared/packaged and non-restaurant) food selections and meal preparations, I could not understand which food might have infiltrated my system. The company “Quality Control” person refuses to answer my GI doctor’s question (vis a vis my e-mail) as to when they began to introduce oat milk products. By searching online, I found their new oat milk chocolate bar products were rolled out in early 2020 (January, as I recall). All of their chocolate bars — those with oat milk and those without oat milk — continue to be labeled with the “GFCO.” While I cannot be absolutely certain of cross-contamination and/or cross-reactivity (at least not until I finish my personal dietary testing), in retrospect I finally seemed to notice a pattern of feeling ill for at least the last half year to nearly this past year after eating their “non-oat” chocolate bars — the same 72% dark chocolate I had for a long time without adverse reactions. I wasn’t even aware that they had oat milk products until about 3 to 5 months ago, when I noticed these products on the store shelves beside my tried-and-true 72% dark chocolate. No mention in their disclaimer that oats or oat by-products are in their production facility or on shared equipment, while they list a disclaimer on all their products mentioning the presence of soy, tree nuts, peanuts, and dairy on their shared equipment.
I have written to Endangered Species and asked if they would add “oats, oat by-products” to their disclaimer on all their chocolate bars’ packaging, and preferably to safeguard those of us from becoming ill (and unwittingly so) by discontinuing use of shared equipment and processing of their oat milk products with their non-oat milk products. The only response thus far that I have received by e-mail from their Quality Manager was this:
“Thank you for giving us all of this information and for your inquiry. I want to assure you that we follow sanitary practices with all of our products. Meaning, after we run the oat milk items, we clean and sanitize the entire line before we would run a non-oat milk chocolate. We are fully compliant with the Gluten Free Certifying body and our products are safe for people with Celiacs Disease. Quarterly testing of our products verifies this. We are sorry for the negative experience with our product and we hope you continue to join us in our mission. Thank you!”
I don’t know how to understand and reconcile the effectiveness of this company’s protocol and what I may have been exposed to, as the Quality Manager described: “… after we run the oat milk items, we clean and sanitize the entire line before we would run a non-oat milk chocolate. We are fully compliant with the Gluten Free Certifying body and our products are safe for people with Celiacs [sic] Disease. Quarterly testing of our products verifies this.”
An increasing number of companies are introducing oat products and oat by-products to their product line and are not including this as part of their allergen or intolerance label disclaimers. This is very troubling due to cross-contamination risks to all of us and cross-reactivity (Avenin and Gliadin) risks to a subset of us within this range of gluten disease.
For those who are not aware, allergen advisory statements/may contain statements refer to processing practices versus allergens that are intentional ingredients in a product (the latter are covered under FALCPA). May contain statements are voluntary, relatively unregulated, and often not related risk. There are efforts worldwide to address at least some of these issues.
The allergens that are included in allergen advisory statements/may contain statements tend to be the same as those covered under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). It may be difficult to convince manufacturers to include oats in may contain statements. My suggestion is what you have already done–ask that manufacturers include oats in an allergen advisory statement. However, this should be done only when it is not possible to follow standards of good manufacturing practice to prevent an unintentional ingredient from ending up in a product. In other words, allergen advisory statements must be more than CYA statements.
The manufacturer, Endangered Species, is stating that the production lines of their oat and non-oat products are shared but that they “clean and sanitize” between their product production lines and “test quarterly in compliance with Gluten Certifying protocol.” They display the “GFCO” on all of their products.
Should we feel secure with their “clean and sanitize” between these products, though it’s still using the same equipment? Is their protocol adequate? Or is it safest if they maintained separate equipment and all other elements of the handling and production line separate for their oats vs non-oat products? I am trying to state the latter to them, to dedicate separate production equipment and processing. But they are not responding to this. Alternatively, they are also not responding to my asking them to place “oats and oat by-products” on all their products’ labeling disclaimers if they will not create dedicated equipment and production lines, much like they list soy, peanuts, tree nuts, and dairy. So far, they are also not responding to this request and holding firmly to their existing protocol as sufficient.
I really believe their non-oat chocolate bars are becoming contaminated periodically and thus possibly and potentially contributing to (my) and other unwitting consumers — because we wouldn’t know of the presence of oats as it is not in their disclaimer.
This is one company among so many. How can we address this short of discontinuing to buy the product, which I have done?
Thank you for your advocacy and this forum.
I hear your frustration. In my opinion, education is your best course of action if you would like manufacturers who use shared equipment with oats to declare this in a voluntary allergen advisory statement. Provide studies on the number of people with celiac disease who can’t tolerate oats. This manufacturer isn’t alone in limiting what is listed in an allergen advisory statement. Again, these statements, such as shared equipment warnings are voluntary. Those who do choose to use them in the US, likely won’t include oats, corn, lupin, mustard (or any number of protein-containing foods folks are allergic to if they aren’t a major allergen under FALCPA).
Would you read my comment posted on 4/26 at 5:27 a.m., and share your experienced perspective? This is just one company among a sea of companies doing similarly. Thank you!