Research Brief: Warning about Gluten-Free Oats


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Warning about Gluten-Free Oats

Three employees of a major U.S. food manufacturer have raised alarm about the safety of gluten-free oats. In an editorial to the journal Cereal Chemistry, they warned that conventional gluten tests do not detect cross-contamination accurately on a serving-by-serving basis. Individual servings of gluten-free oats sometimes contain more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, the level considered safe for people with celiac. Their tests found both mechanically or optically cleaned oats and so-called purity protocol oats may not meet the standard.

The authors include two employees of
PepsiCo Inc. and one from its subsidiary, Quaker Foods and Snacks. Their report arose from several studies funded by PepsiCo Inc. to investigate the safety of gluten-free oats.

In 2017, the team analyzed samples of gluten-free-labeled oatmeal from two major manufacturers that rely on mechanical or optical sorting to remove wheat grains from oats. They found 1 in 57 servings did not meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 20-ppm standard. However, these tests utilized small 0.25-gram samples taken from each serving. Upon further investigation, the researchers discovered this test, which is the standard measure for food safety, underestimates the level of gluten contamination in the whole serving.

A subsequent analysis of purity protocol oats used a more rigorous approach. It measured the gluten content of entire 50-gram servings of products from three large producers. These oats are produced with strict standards to prevent contamination by wheat in the field, transportation and manufacture. However, the authors report that 5 out of 166 servings failed the test. Gluten in the contaminated samples ranged from 20.4 to 229 ppm, affecting two of the three products.


Can’t compare

The results cannot be compared scientifically with those for optically and mechanically cleaned oats because the test methods were different. However, the authors argue their findings raise unanswered questions about all gluten-free oat products. Without changes to industry and testing standards, consumers will occasionally get glutened. The health risk for this level of exposure is unknown.

However, several studies have found oats do not adversely affect people on a gluten-free diet.

Chen Y, Fritz RD and Ferrini L, “Compliance assessment of US gluten-free labeled oatmeal produced under a ‘purity protocol’ indicates ‘serving level compliance’ not attained,” Cereal Chemistry, 2018;95(1):92-93, doi:10.1002/cche.10008


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