Steel cut oats are sliced pieces of oat groats, the center portion of the grain. Unlike many other grains, the proteins found in oats may be safe for people with celiac disease, an immune response against the protein gluten. Adding oats as part of a gluten-free diet can add texture and satiety that may be missing for people who can't consume most grain products, but there's still controversy regarding whether oats are truly safe for those whose bodies can't handle gluten. Cross-contamination and the presence of proteins similar to gluten are potential problems when considering whether oats are truly gluten-free.
Oats and Gluten
Steel cut oats are a whole grain, like wheat, rye and barley, but they contain higher levels of protein than other grains, according to Drugs.com. The proteins in oats differ from those in the other grains as well. The protein gluten occurs in rye, wheat and barley at high levels but is absent from oats when they are harvested. However, gluten contamination may occur during processing into oat groats, steel cut oats, rolled oats or oatmeal.
Celiac disease is the most common form of gluten intolerance. People with celiac disease develop an immune response to gluten when food containing it enters the small intestines. When someone with celiac disease ingests gluten, he may experience symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea. Another condition caused by gluten intolerance is dermatitis herpetiformis, according to MayoClinic.com. People with dermatitis herpetiformis don't develop gastrointestinal symptoms when they consume gluten but instead experience itchy, blistering skin. Because oats are a naturally gluten-free grain, uncontaminated oats can usually be consumed by people with a gluten intolerance without any problems.
Oats can become contaminated when processed on machinery that is also used to process wheat, barley, rye or hybrids derived from gluten-containing grains, according to Celiac.com. Oats grown in fields near other grains can also be contaminated during harvest. Another possible source of contamination is during grain transport. People with celiac disease who are concerned about possible cross-contamination should choose oats from mills that have protocols in place to avoid cross-contamination and who test their products regularly for gluten contamination.
People who react to gluten may also react to the protein avenin, which makes up about 10 percent of the total protein content in oats, according to Drugs.com. Avenins are related to gluten, but because they are a different protein, not everyone sensitive to gluten reacts to avenin. However, because of the possibility of an avenin intolerance, people with celiac disease should proceed carefully when adding oats to the diet. Eliminating oats completely and gradually reintroducing them can help determine whether they cause a response.