Oats are often praised as one of the healthiest breakfast options around — but many people are also confused about how they’re made and what makes them different from other cereal grains. Left wondering, “Are oats gluten-free?” some people choose to give them up all together without knowing the full story.
According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, yes — oats are technically gluten-free since they aren’t a type of wheat, barley or rye grain, the three groups of whole grains that naturally contain the protein gluten. Instead of containing gluten, oats actually have a protein called avenins.
Oats are considered safe for those with a gluten allergy, easier for most people to digest, much less likely to cause negative reactions and are “non-toxic.” Reports show that “perhaps less than 1 percent of celiac patients show a reaction to a large amount of oats in their diets.” (1)
That being said, even if you think it’s time to give up gluten, you don’t need to ban oats. It’s usually even safe for someone with celiac disease (an allergy to gluten) or gluten sensitivity to have oats in her diet, as long as that person is careful about how the oats were manufactured and processed. Although they don’t contain gluten naturally, the question of “are oats gluten-free?” can become complicated when we look at how oats are grown and manufactured.
In many cases, oats are grown on the same land and in rotation with gluten-containing grains (wheat, barley and rye). Gluten grains possibly can grow within the oat crops if they’re planted in the field the previous year, in which case the oats become contaminated with wheat, barley or rye (and therefore gluten). Are oats gluten-free if they’re grown on the same fields as gluten grains? It’s very unlikely, which is the main reason most store-bought oats contain some trace gluten particles.
It’s also very common for oats to be handled in the same facilities that manufacture wheat-containing products, so there’s always a chance that oats can become contaminated with gluten during the packaging process. Once the oats are harvested and bought to a manufacturing facility to be cleaned and packaged, gluten crops might be mixed in with them and little bits of wheat, barley or rye may end up in a package of oats. Even if this doesn’t happen, oats and gluten crops are likely to be processed using the same equipment, which creates another chance for contamination. (2)
What if they’re organic? Are oats gluten-free then? Simply put, organic labeling doesn’t tell you anything about gluten content. So be sure that even if you buy organic oats, you check that they’re certified gluten-free, too.
How to Be Sure Your Oats Are Gluten-Free
The reasons above are why most regular oats available in the supermarket, even the kind in “bulk bins” at health food stores, are likely not 100 percent gluten-free.
If someone with a known gluten allergy or sensitivity wants to buy and eat gluten-free oats, she should be careful that they’re sourced from a provider that guarantees there hasn’t been cross-contamination with wheat, rye or barley. These types of oats are labeled “certified gluten-free” and are the kind I recommend you buy whenever possible, since gluten can cause digestive issues even in people without a known sensitivity.
Gluten-free oats are guaranteed to be grown on fields that aren’t used to grow gluten crops, are shipped in gluten-free trucks and processed on gluten-free equipment. Quality inspections by third parties also ensure the pedigreed crops are free from contamination by wheat, rye, barley and other related grains — and that the gluten-free product is, in fact, that. This is the only way to be totally sure that oats are safely free of even trace amounts of gluten.
If Oats Are Gluten-Free, Why Do They Give Me a Stomach Ache?
Even when someone doesn’t have a negative reaction to eating gluten, it’s possible that he or she might experience some symptoms when eating oats — such as GI troubles, including bloating, cramping or diarrhea. This might be caused by the high level of fiber found in oats and is more likely to be a problem for people who aren’t used to eating high-fiber foods very often. With some time, these should go away, and oats (or other fiber-containing foods) should become better tolerated as your digestive system gets used to eating more bulky foods in a high-fiber diet.
Soaking oats overnight and drinking lots of water can also help to get rid of digestive problems. Like all other whole grains, soaking oats helps reduce antinutrients and enzymes that can mess with nutrient absorption and digestion.
Oats Nutrition Facts
Now that you’re clear on the fact that oats are gluten-free, you can feel better about having them more often. Oats are one of the most popular whole grains worldwide, and for good reason: They’re a good source of fiber, trace minerals and even plant-based protein. Like all whole grains, oats even contain some healthy fatty acids since they retain their entire germ, endosperm and bran, which is where not only nutrients are stored, but also small amounts of essential fats.
Oats —which come from the plant with the scientific name Avena sativa — are a type of common whole-grain cereal grain grown for its seeds. Oats have been eaten for thousands of years, and in addition to providing important nutrients to growing populations, they’ve also historically been important for feeding livestock.
Evidence shows the wild oats first grew in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East centuries ago, although humans didn’t domesticate oats until the Bronze Age in Europe. For many years, oat grass was even used for medicinal purposes, including to help balance a women’s menstrual cycle, as an osteoporosis natural remedy and a home remedy for urinary tract infections.
½ cup of regular dried or instant rolled oats (which makes about one cup cooked) has about: (3)
- 154 calories
- 1–2 grams fat
- 4–5 grams fiber
- 5–6 grams protein
- Less than 1 gram of sugar
- 5 milligrams manganese (73 percent DV)
- 166 milligrams phosphorus (16 percent)
- 7 milligrams selenium (16 percent)
- 56 milligrams magnesium (14 percent)
- 0.19 milligrams thiamine (12 percent)
- 7 milligrams iron (10 percent)
- 5 milligrams zinc (10 percent)
- 0.16 milligrams copper (8 percent)
- 0.45 milligrams pantothenic acid/vitamin B5 (5 percent)
To be clear, although oats do have health benefits and are considered an unprocessed whole grain, I still recommend consuming even whole grains in moderation. While they provide important nutrients and can be found in gluten-free verities, grains still have the potential to cause digestive issues and can contribute to weight gain and blood sugar imbalances when eaten in large amounts.
Compared to whole foods like vegetables, fruits and some healthy sources of fats, whole grains are not as nutrient-dense, so plan to have them in moderation and as part of an otherwise healthy diet that’s high in fresh foods, protein and essential fats.
Health Benefits of Oats
1. Help Lower Cholesterol
Oats are one of the most loved high-fiber foods there are. Oats contain soluble fiber, particularly a kind called beta-glucans, which can help naturally lower cholesterol when eaten several times or more per week. B-glucan is a soluble dietary fiber found in the endosperm cell walls of oats that’s praised for its cholesterol-lowering, insulin-regulating properties. (4) In fact, because they contain more soluble fiber than many other grains, oats are one of the most recommended grains for reducing LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, total cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease.
According to the FDA, a high-fiber diet (with as little as just three grams of soluble fiber daily from whole grains) can lower the risk for heart disease. Studies show that people who consume whole grains like oats and eat plenty of fiber from whole foods are more likely to maintain better cardiovascular health, in addition to a healthier body weight. (5)
One reason this is true is because oats contain not only fiber, but important, heart-healthy trace minerals and phenolic compounds linked to lower inflammation levels, reduced hypertension and disease prevention. The fiber we acquire from oats swells up in the digestive track, absorbing water and taking with it waste and excess cholesterol particles.
2. Provide Filling Fiber
Oats and other whole grains contain more belly-filling fiber, in addition to more vitamins and minerals, compared to processed and refined cereal grains or carbohydrates. Oats’ soluble fiber is present in the outer casing of the oat, called the oat bran. Oats contain about 55 percent soluble fiber and 45 percent insoluble fiber. Fiber is more than a regulator; fiber-rich foods also take up a large amount of space in your stomach while absorbing water, so they help you feel satisfied despite being low in calories.
Oats can help support weight loss because their high fiber content makes you feel full, satisfied and less likely to deal with cravings as a result of fluctuating blood-sugar levels. Rolled oats are a great way to fill your need for comforting carbs without consuming too many calories, excess sugar or a load of insulin-spiking refined carbohydrates.
3. Help Improve Digestion
Oats provides a good daily dose of the fiber you need in order to maintain regular bowel movements and detox your body. Because we can’t digest dietary fiber from whole foods, it sweeps through our digestive tracts and pulls toxins and waste along with it, which is one reason why many studies show that diets higher in fiber can lead to improved gut and colon health, constipation relief and curtailed IBS-related symptoms. To get the most benefits from eating oats, make sure to also increase your water intake to allow fiber to do its job best.
4. Increase Immunity
Beta-glucans, naturally occurring polysaccharides found in oats and other protective foods like mushrooms, are known to enhance immune function by fighting bacterial infection and lowering inflammation that’s at the root of most diseases. They do this by activating certain immune responses, especially white blood cells called macrophages that fight fungus, bacteria and toxins.
In fact, consuming foods rich in beta-glucans is even linked with the ability to naturally fight cancer cells. (6) Beta-glucans show anticarcinogenic activity and are capable of reducing cancerous tumor growth.
5. Have a Low Glycemic Score Compared to Refined Grains
If you feel like you’re always tired because your blood sugar is out of whack, switching to whole grains can help. Steel-cut or rolled oats (the kind that are unsweetened and unflavored) have a low score on the glycemic index, especially compared to enriched or refined carbohydrates, which means they can prevent spikes and dips in energy. (7, 8) Oats provide slow-releasing carbohydrates that keep blood sugar in check and support sustainable energy, which might be one reason why people love having them for breakfast or before a workout.
Whole grain oats also improve insulin sensitivity, which is one reason they’re tied to lower rates of diabetes and other chronic diseases. Although oats contain plenty of carbohydrates, their high level of fiber slows the rate that glucose is digested, so your blood sugar is more stable as a result. Quick and instant oats are capable of spiking blood sugar quicker than less processed oats, so look for steel-cut or rolled (old-fashioned) oats that have the least impact on blood sugar and insulin levels.
6. Provide Trace Minerals like Manganese and Phosphorus
Just one serving of oats provides about 73 percent of your daily manganese and 16 percent of your daily phosphorus needs. Manganese is important for maintaining a healthy bone structure since it plays a role in creating essential enzymes for building bones. It also supports your metabolism, energy levels and hormonal balance.
Phosphorus is another crucial nutrient for bone health, in addition to protecting teeth and gums. Phosphorus-rich foods can contribute to healthy growth and development, and foods high in phosphorus regulate digestion of nutrients and improving kidney, muscle, heart and nerve functions. Oats are also a good source of selenium benefits, magnesium, iron, copper and B vitamins. Foods containing these nutrients prevent deficiencies — such as iron deficiency, copper deficiency and B vitamins deficiency — that can cause a sluggish metabolism, anemia, poor energy, “brain fog,” mood changes and aches or pains.
7. Higher Source of Protein Compared to Most Grains
Oats are a good source of plant-based protein, with more than eight grams in every 2/3 of a cup — more than you find in nearly all cereals. Together with fruit, raw milk or yogurt, they can make a filling breakfast that provides antioxidants and energizing nutrients.
How to Buy and Cook Oats
When it comes to buying oats, you already learned to look for certified gluten-free oats to avoid gluten contamination. The other important things to look for are rolled or old-fashioned oats, and a kind that has no added sweeteners or flavors. Check the ingredients label carefully to make sure no flavoring, preservatives or chemical sweeteners are included; the sugar content should always be zero for pure oats.
Confused about all of the different kinds of oats available in grocery stores?
No matter the kind you buy, all types start off at oat groats, but then they’re processed in different ways, which results in a variety of textures, uses and effects on digestion. Different types have roughly the same nutrient breakdown and health benefits, although “quick oats” are absorbed by the body more quickly and can spike blood sugar more rapidly than rolled or steel-cut oats. (9, 10)
As long as your oats are plain and free of sugar and chemicals (plus ideally certified gluten-free), any type makes a relatively good choice, but ideally buy steel-cut or rolled oats. Although these take slightly longer to cook, they’re also more versatile in baking and recipes since they’re less processed and hold their texture.
Here’s a breakdown of what makes these oats different:
Steel-Cut Oats — When the whole oat groat is split into pieces. These have a chewy, nutty flavor and are also called Irish or Scottish oats. They have less of an impact on blood sugar than processed oats.
Rolled Oats — When groats are steamed to make them soft and then pressed between rollers and dried. They tend to cook quicker than steel-cut oats because they absorb water quickly but are still low on the glycemic index.
Old-Fashioned Oats — The same as rolled oats but given a different name.
Instant or Quick Oats — When groats are pressed thinner than rolled oats and steamed longer so they cook more quickly. They’re cut into tiny pieces, which sometimes makes them look powdery. These are the kind to usually be pre-flavored and sugary, so check to make sure they’re plain.
Oat Flour — When oats are steamed, rolled, pressed and cut very finely to make a uniform powder/flour. This can raise blood sugar more quickly, which makes them a poor choice.
You can cook oats in a few different ways, but the most popular way is to make them on the stovetop. Do this by bringing one cup of water (or a milk of your choice, such as almond milk, coconut milk or raw goat milk) to a boil, then adding a half cup of old-fashioned rolled oats. Reduce the heat to medium, and sit them occasionally for about five to seven minutes or until they’re soft and have absorbed most of the water.
Other ways to make oats? Let them sit overnight in water to soak, and then rinse them well and heat them for just one-two minutes. You can also use rolled oats in granola or oat flour in baked goods or in place of bread crumbs. Also keep in mind that oats don’t even need to be cooked at all — steaming and rolling them (which happens before they’re sold to customers) and soaking them does the job of making them edible. Muesli, for example, is made of uncooked oats.
Healthy Oats Recipes
Oats have many uses around the world beyond just being the base for a simple breakfast. For example, oat bread has been an important food for many cultures living in Europe for hundreds of years, especially the English, Irish and Scottish. The first oat bread factory was established in 1899 in Scotland, and this staple food can still be found across Great Britain, as can oat flour products, oat porridge, and oats made into soil fertilizer or feed for horses and cattle.
Oats are also used in a variety of baked goods worldwide, including oatcakes, oatmeal cookies and oat bread. In the U.S., they’re available in popular granolas, too, although it’s better to make your own to avoid loads of sugar. Oats are even used in several different drinks across the world, from the brewed beer in England to oatmeal stout in Ireland. In Latin America, oats are used to make a popular cold “milk” drink called avena.
What can you do with oats at home? With everything from oat flour to diary-free oat milk, there are loads of ways to incorporate more oats into your diet. And don’t think that oats are limited to breakfast — you’d be surprised how many people enjoy “savory” oats or oat-based desserts that are low in sugar.
Here are several ways to start, including oats in your diet more often:
Total Time: 15–20 minutes
- 2/3 cup steel cut oats
- 2 cups coconut milk
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup pumpkin puree (unsweetened)
- 1/2 tablespoon chia seeds
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ginger
- 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
- Heat the oats and coconut milk in medium-sized pot to boil
- Turn down to simmer and add pumpkin and chia
- Simmer for 5–7 minutes
- Add remaining spices, stirring regularly
- Simmer for additional 5–7 minutes
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