All you need to know about gluten-free oats (& whether they're suitable for coeliacs)
I'll never forget that glorious moment whilst pushing a trolley in Waitrose. There they were - an oasis in the desert: gluten-free oats. You could practically hear the screeching of brakes as I came to a halt and reversed up the aisle, rubbing my eyes to check I wasn't dreaming.
It was 2006 and I was so surprised by what I saw I didn't dare buy them until I'd seen a wheat-free friend about it. "Oh they're real!" she laughed. "They've figured out a way to ensure they're safe."
Why aren't all oats suitable for coeliacs?
The problem (historically) lies in the way they're made. There's a very real chance normal oats have been contaminated with wheat (either from the way they're harvested or manufactured, with machinery and/or proximity to wheat being the culprit).
What label should I look out for?
The oats have to specify they're gluten-free. Don't be fooled by clever marketing such as:
None of these tell you the oats are suitable for coeliacs.
But what about the oats you found marked gluten-free?
Obviously, I bought them and had the best breakfast ever: porridge.
Does that mean all coeliacs can eat gluten-free oats?
Sadly, no. What I didn't realise was that some coeliacs react to avenin in oats - a protein which mimics the same issues as the proteins in gluten. And I was one of those coeliacs.
It took me a while to come to that conclusion, though. At first I thought I'd accidentally eaten gluten. Then I decided it might be cross-contact with gluten (a bread knife not cleaned properly in the washing up, maybe).
And all the while I gorged myself on amazing gluten-free oat biscuits and delicious home-made muesli. I wondered why all products didn't use gluten-free oat flour because it made things taste so much better. Any of my muggle friends who tried an oat-containing gluten-free product could see no difference between it and its normal counterpart. Surely oats should be used more liberally?
But when I finally (finally!) made the connection, I began to wish we had the Australian system. They don't allow any oat-containing products to be labelled gluten-free because they don't believe oats are suitable for coeliacs (or anyone who has a medical reason to be on a gluten-free diet).
So when I travelled to Melbourne in 2017, I had the joy of going up and down Coles and Woolworths where anything labelled gluten-free was suitable for me. In the UK, I have to trawl through every ingredient and allergens list regardless of whether there's a gluten-free label or not.
Will eating oats cause the same long-term damage as gluten?
It was only in my recent live chat with Cristian Costas (in my new series: Gluten-Free Lunch Break) that I discovered the answer.
For coeliacs who react to oats, Cristian confirmed eating them was as bad long-term as it was to eat gluten, which I was really keen to know. I'd read a suggestion in a closed coeliac Facebook group that you could build up a tolerance to gluten-free oats and should start small. I put this to Cristian. The short answer? No!
And if you don't get a reaction? The only way to know for sure is to have a biopsy taken after you've reintroduced gluten-free oats back in your diet for several months. Many coeliacs have silent symptoms (i.e. not the crazy pain I go through when I eat oats) and put down issues such as fatigue to lifestyle choices rather than the real culprit: avenin.
All that said, Coeliac UK is keen to promote gluten-free oats as being safe for the majority of coeliacs so I guess I just got unlucky.
So should I try gluten-free oats?
Honestly? There's no current test available to know for sure unless you go in for a biospy and you're absolutely certain you're not eating any gluten. Since many coeliacs don't seem to have issues, you may feel it's worth trying.
What are the alternatives?
There aren't really any ways to replicate an oat, which is probably why they feature in so many breakfast dishes. I'd give rice flakes a wide berth (unless you like crunchy tiny cardboard pieces!) but I've had some really good experiences with buckwheat flakes and groats. They make an excellent alternative in 'overnight oats' recipes and also a pretty decent porridge. Groats have a nuttier texture whereas the flakes are quite smooth.
Where can I find buckwheat flakes?
I recently went to Holland & Barrett but they didn't have any in store - just online. And the last time I purchased something from them online it turned out to have gluten in the 'may contains' and I was really cross because this hadn't been specified on the website. But there are places online with buckwheat flakes that are "certified GF" so that's probably the best place to start.