Bob’s Red Mill prides ourselves on our vast array of gluten free oat products. We have oats rolled, cut, and mixed in every way our celiac and/or gluten-intolerant hearts desire! You may have seen my post about the difference between celiac disease, gluten intolerance, and wheat allergies earlier this month. Today I bring to you the second installment of Food Challenges 101: Why some people can’t eat oats, even when they are tested and confirmed gluten free.
Let’s back up and explain a little bit about gluten free oats in general. Oats do not inherently contain gluten. The reason they are often included in the list of grains that people on a gluten free diet should avoid is because oats have historically been grown with or around gluten-containing grains. Farmers might rotate crops with wheat one year and oats the next, for instance, so the field of oats could have stray wheat grow that was planted the year prior. The oats may then be stored in a gluten-containing silo, transported in a cross-contaminated truck, or cleaned and processed in a facility where gluten-containing grains are also produced. The oats that would have otherwise been gluten free are now contaminated with gluten.
When oats are handled with care to avoid cross contamination, sorted to remove impurities, and tested (and confirmed!) for absence of gluten, gluten free folks can feel confident about enjoying a nice, creamy, warm bowl of oatmeal . . .
. . . unless they can’t. There are a handful of gluten intolerant folks (myself included!) who can’t eat even the purest of oats. Why not? It’s not about gluten, but rather about the molecular composition of oats themselves. Oats contain a protein called avenin, to which some people are intolerant or even allergic. Now you’re asking, “What’s the difference between being intolerant and allergic?”
The way the immune system responds to the protein of foods determine whether the person is allergic, intolerant, or neither. Our bodies create antibodies, which are proteins that act as the body’s army in the war on foreign materials. When the body spots an intruder (such as a virus,) the commander (our brains) releases the troops (antibodies) to attach themselves to the intruder, rendering them ineffective. That’s how your body stay well despite being exposed to germs. The "intruder" in the case of oat allergies is the protein avenin.
Some people’s bodies are really particular about what is seen as an intruder. As a defense, a person with a food intolerance or food allergy will make an antibody to the protein of a food. That particular food protein is called the antigen. It's the site on the molecule with which the antibody interacts. Immunogloblin, written “Ig” in shorthand, is another name for antibody, and there are five different types in humans. IgE and IgG are the two types that are of particular interest in intolerances and allergies. IgE binds not only to the antigen, but also to mast cells, which then release histamine, which sends a cascade of allergic responses in varying degrees of severity from runny nose to anaphylaxis. IgG signals the body to a slower, more prolonged chronic response rather than IgE’s more acute and immediate response. IgG responses might include inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, fatigue, and more.
Ultimately, whether a person has celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or neither, doesn't tell the full story of how they will process oats. Folks with or without gluten intolerance may have IgG or IgE antibodies that react to oat proteins, causing either acute or chronic symptoms of digestive disapproval.
We can be sure our gluten free oats are just that, but we can't be sure if oats are an approved part of your diet. For that, we encourage you to talk to your doctor. When you're ready to give gluten free oats a try, step right this way. If you find out that you, like me, cannot eat oats, we have plenty of other delicious and wholesome gluten free and oat free whole grain hot cereals, like Corn Grits, Brown Rice Farina, and Mighty Tasty Hot Cereal. We even have an oat free muesli, just for you! Well, and me too. Almost all of our gluten free baking mixes are also without oats, just be sure to check the label.