New research, highlighted by a letter in the Nov. 4 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that three popular brands of oats in the United States, which have been considered safe for people with celiac disease, were contaminated with gluten.
Tricia Thompson, an independent nutrition consultant wrote to the Journal, noting, "This research suggests that gluten contamination of commercial oat products in the United States is a legitimate concern for persons with celiac disease."
People with celiac disease have often been told they can safely consume moderate amounts of uncontaminated oats, said Thompson. But the new research supports what celiac disease organizations have already been saying: Pure, uncontaminated oats in the commercial market are impossible to produce, and each person's reaction to oats is different, so celiacs should avoid oats in the first place.
The research, performed in an independent laboratory, tested Quaker Oats because it is a popular brand in the United States; Country Choice oats, because they are certified organic; and McCann's oats, which are produced in an oats-only facility.
No one from Country Choice was available to comment before press time.
Nine of the 12 samples taken contained enough gluten—more than 20 parts per million—that they could not be labeled gluten-free. Each of the three brands tested contained more than 200 parts per million in at least one of its samples.
Oats can be contaminated in the field by barley or wheat, which contain gluten, during harvesting or during transportation and processing.
Tom Sullivan, president of the Celiac Sprue Association, said this means celiacs should avoid oats altogether. But for retailers, it means they must understand the products they carry and know what gluten-free really means. "You have to be very careful about what you're presuming or claiming is gluten free."
Thompson said retailers should advise people with celiac disease to avoid buying oats sold in bulk bins because they are more likely to be contaminated.
"Retailers may want to tell consumers that based on recent research, oats themselves appear to be gluten-free," she said. "However, there is a strong likelihood that oats may be contaminated with small amounts of wheat or barley."
Thompson also encouraged retailers to contact oat millers directly to ask them about their clean-out procedures and whether they have allergen-control programs.