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