Research clarifies safety of oats for people with celiac disease

Published on
June 4, 2013

Oats are widely consumed by people suffering from gluten intolerance (celiac disease). However, the safety of certain oat varieties has been the subject of recent debate. Researchers from Wageningen UR have addressed this issue by investigating whether the peptides responsible for disease induction that are present in wheat, rye and barley are also present in oats. The study found none of the peptides that cause reactions in people with gluten intolerance are present in oats.

Celiac disease is an intolerance to gluten, the seed proteins in wheat, barley and rye. During digestion these proteins are broken down into smaller fragments, so-called peptides. In 1-3% of the population these peptides may cause a chronic inflammation of the small intestine, resulting in deficient uptake of nutrients. When diagnosed, the only treatment is to follow a strict and life-long gluten-free diet. It is difficult to comply with this because gluten is not only present in the expected products, such as bread, cookies and pasta, but is also applied as a hidden ‘quality improver’ in a large variety of processed food products, such as soups, sweets, meat and fish products, canned vegetables and so on, as well as in medical formulations.

Over the past decade, the consumption of oats by people with celiac disease has increased rapidly in North-western European countries, particularly as oats supplement high-quality soluble fibre (beta-glucans) in fibre-poor gluten-free diets. However, concerns were raised recently about the safety of certain oat varieties. Diagnostic tests for gluten, based on antibodies and T-cells, suggested the presence of peptides in certain oat varieties, which are also present in wheat, barley and rye, and are known to cause reactions in people with celiac disease. This required further clarification.

The Wageningen scientists have characterised oat seed proteins in a series of oat species. None of the 29 internationally agreed toxic peptides of wheat, barley or rye were present in any of the oat species tested. The scientists conclude that the antibody and T-cell signals obtained from various oat varieties, as published in recent literature, have no clinical relevance for people with celiac disease. It is likely that all oat species and varieties are similarly safe for the majority of people with celiac disease.

In the Netherlands, a guaranteed gluten-free oat production chain has been established in which research organisations participate, including Wageningen UR, government and private companies. The first commercial products are already on the market: Gluten-free oat-based breakfast products and gluten-free oat bread. Current research focuses on the quality and improvement of oat varieties for bread-making purposes.