Oats are part of a well-balanced, healthy diet. You can eat them plain, and they are also in the ingredients lists of many recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and various snacks. Whether you have celiac disease (CD) or you’re otherwise looking to avoid gluten, you may be wondering if oats are gluten-free.

The answer to this question is yes … and no. Keep reading to learn more about why oats may contain gluten, what food labels mean, and which brands you can enjoy without worry.

About 3 million people in the United States have CD. A gluten-free diet is usually an effective treatment for people with CD. Issues can come up if a person accidentally eats gluten through cross-contamination.

Oats don’t naturally contain gluten. Cross-contamination with gluten may happen in the fields where oats are grown or, more commonly, through processing and packaging facilities, though. This means that the oats come in contact with ingredients like wheat, barley, and rye, making them unsafe for people with CD.

People with CD can also have cross-reactions with oats. This can happen even with products that are not contaminated through processing. Oats contain avenin, a protein similar to gluten. Some people have reported symptoms after eating gluten-free oats. Yet, other studies find only a small risk of this cross-reaction.

In a study published by The Journal of Autoimmunity, researchers had a group of people with CD eat 100 grams of gluten-free oats each day for three days. Only eight percent of participants had a T-cell reaction to the oats. Some participants reported digestive issues after the study. The researchers propose that some people eating gluten-free diets may experience digestive issues due to the high fiber content of oats.

In most cases, it seems that eating gluten-free oats is safe for people with CD. Just make sure you read the labels and look for options that say they are gluten-free. That indicates that there is no risk of cross-contamination.

As of 2013, labeling for gluten-free foods has been standardized by the United States. Manufacturers can voluntarily mark their products gluten-free. Doing so makes them accountable to their claims. It also means they must meet all the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements related to this labeling.

What to look for when reading food labels

The FDA regulations for gluten-free foods apply to these four different terms:

  • gluten-free
  • free of gluten
  • no gluten
  • without gluten

Foods with these labels must have less than 20 parts per million of wheat, rye, barley, and other gluten-containing grains. This number is the lowest level that you can detect in foods using current scientific methods. Anything with these labels should be safe for you to eat.

You may need to hunt around to find this labeling on your package. The FDA does not require that “gluten-free” appear anywhere specific. Also understand that the gluten-free logo you see on some foods is not through the FDA. While these foods may meet the FDA’s requirements, the certification for this logo is a separate, third-party process.

Learn more: What to avoid and what to eat when you have a gluten intolerance »

The best way to see if the oats you want to eat are gluten-free is to read labels carefully. If you aren’t sure if the oatmeal you have is gluten-free or not, don’t eat it until you find out. Some people may have reactions to even small amounts of gluten. You can always call the company and ask your specific questions.

Some gluten-free oats and oatmeal products include:

  • Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Extra Thick Rolled Oats
  • Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Quick-Cooking Oats
  • Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Scottish Oatmeal
  • Glutenfreeda Gluten-Free Oatmeal (assorted)
  • McCann’s Gluten-Free Irish Oatmeal, Quick & Easy, Steel Cut
  • Nature’s Path Organic Hot Oatmeal, Gluten-Free (assorted)
  • Nature’s Path Qi’a Superfood Gluten-Free Oatmeal (assorted)
  • Udi’s Gluten-Free Plain Steel Cut Oats
  • Quaker Select Starts Gluten-Free Instant Oatmeal Packets (assorted)

If you cannot find any oats with gluten-free labeling at your grocery store, ask an associate if they carry these products in another area. Some stores have special gluten-free sections. Others may shelve their gluten-free products in the natural foods section. You may consider ordering specific brands online if you cannot find them in your area.

You may also want to stay away from processed or homemade foods that contain oats if you do not know the source.

Oats are naturally a gluten-free food. If you have CD, you can still enjoy oats if you read labels carefully and look for gluten-free terms on the packaging. To bear these words, the manufacturer must meet the FDA’s guidelines to keep you safe. If the oats do not say they are gluten-free, they may contain gluten through cross-contamination. Try to find another brand or do not eat them until you contact the company to find out the specifics.

Read more: Symptoms of gluten intolerance »