The Oat Milk Craze
by Amy Burkhart MD, RD
Is your oat milk latte really gluten-free? Oat milk is all the rage in coffee houses and beyond. Sales of oat milk have increased by nearly 700% in the past year. While some companies, cafes, and dining establishments have chosen gluten-free oats and oat milk to use in their products, this isn’t the case for all. Let’s delve deeper into what the oats/ oat milk trend means for people with gluten intolerance or celiac disease.
Are Oats Gluten-Free?
Oats do not naturally contain gluten. Oats in the United States are often cross-contaminated during growing and production. To ensure that oats are gluten-free, you will need to look for “purity protocol oats.” These are oats that are grown and manufactured in a gluten-free environment.
You will also see “certified gluten-free oats” on labels. Certified gluten-free oats may be purity protocol or may be oats that have been manufactured using a particular sorting method. This sorting method is controversial. Oats produced in this manner are not recommended for people with celiac disease. That being said, many people with celiac disease eat these oats without symptoms. It just maybe like playing a bit of Russian roulette. If it says “certified gluten-free oats” I recommend you contact the company to confirm what type of oats are used. I am not a fan of Russian roulette.
For the gluten-intolerant person, oats may or may not be problematic. There are no studies on this issue. Some gluten-intolerant people state they can not tolerate oats, even gluten-free oats. This may be because many people with gluten intolerance actually have something called FODMAP intolerance and are reacting to the sugar component of the grain, not the gluten. A person with FODMAP intolerance can typically tolerate oats in small amounts, but symptoms occur with larger amounts.
Some People With Gluten Intolerance Or Celiac Disease React To Oats- Even Gluten-Free Oats
Oats do not contain gluten. They contain a protein that looks like gluten. In some people, this protein causes symptoms similar to a “gluten-reaction.”
Eight percent of people with celiac disease react to oats, even gluten-free oats. In this 8% of celiacs, oats cause a mild to severe reaction. In my clinical (and personal) experience, the reaction is slightly different than a “gluten-reaction.” None the less it is terrible. Symptoms differ for everyone, just as they do with eating gluten. Some of the symptoms include muscle pains, headache, neurologic symptoms such as anxiety, depression, spasms, digestive problems, flu-like symptoms, and more. These symptoms can last for days to weeks.
It Doesn't Take Much
Having celiac disease is often compared to living with a peanut allergy. But, instead of peanuts, that food is gluten. While celiac disease is not an “allergy” (it is an autoimmune disease), people with celiac disease need to be equally as careful as people with food allergies when it comes to food choices and meal preparation. Unfortunately, no matter how careful a person with celiac disease is, there are times when accidental exposure to gluten happens, and the exact food is a mystery. While this may not sound like a big deal to some, it can mean days to weeks spent in bed, tortuous mental and physical symptoms, lost work, and lost wages for people with celiac disease.
While gluten-free labeling laws have lowered the risk of gluten exposure, eating gluten accidentally is often due to cross-contamination. When this is the case, labels may not answer. Most people with celiac disease are aware of the need to be concerned about shared cooking surfaces or meal preparation areas. They never thought their latte might be to blame.
Oats/Oat Milk In Drinks And Products
A new reason for gluten cross-contamination-related to the widespread use of oat milk is here. This may be problematic if you have gluten intolerance or celiac disease.
If the oat milk used by an establishment is not gluten-free, this is a game-changer. The risk of cross-contamination of your coffee drink just skyrocketed. The pitchers, steam spigots, and blenders used to steam milk are typically shared with all milk varieties.
This means that quite possibly, that oat milk latte ordered by the person in front of you just got into your almond milk latte. How? One possibility is the steam spigot that went into the oat milk latte made for the person before you. It just went into your drink. Yes, it may have been wiped with a cloth, but that may not be sufficient.
My point is, now you must ask the barista if their oat milk is gluten-free. Ahhhh, and all you wanted was hot coffee!
If the oat milk used by a company or establishment is gluten-free, you are good to go. If you react to oats, you should avoid all products and drinks containing oat milk.
What To Do
If the oat milk used is gluten-free:
If you do not react to oats, you are good to go!
If the oat milk is not gluten-free or you react to oats:
- Ask for a clean pitcher and have them steam the spout with water before making your drink with another form of “milk. Let them know you have an “allergy.” While celiac disease is not an “allergy,” that is the lingo they are used to.
- Choose an iced coffee beverage that doesn’t require a pitcher or steam spout to be cleaned.
- Have another coffee drink without steamed milk of any kind.
- Get your espresso drink with your milk of choice on the side. The milk will not be steamed, but If you don’t want to ask all the questions, this is an option.
- Skip the coffee but not the social occasion. Choose another beverage. Getting out and about is important!
- Ask, ask, ask. Many gluten-free products are now made with oat flour. Unfortunately, not all people understand that GF oat flour is needed to be truly gluten-free. Ask
- If you are met by a look of confusion when asking and can not tolerate any oats-avoid the product.
- Read labels
- If the label does not state “gluten-free oats”- contact the company.
- If the label doesn’t state “gluten-free oats” and the product carries a “certified gluten-free” label- I recommend you contact the company for clarification.
- Ask questions, ask questions, ask questions!
- Learn the brands of oat milk used in your favorite cafe. You can sign up for my email list above and receive a free PDF to get you started.
- Educate people on the difference between oats and gluten-free oats-that is the only way to make progress.
- Inquire at restaurants and coffee houses- if they are corporate, and their oat milk/oat products are not gluten-free- contact their headquarters. They may not even be aware of these issues. They may be able to use other brands if enough people request a change. If you are a regular customer-ask for them to consider a change of oat milk brands or products with gluten-free oats. .It never hurts to ask. They might say yes!
THIS ARTICLE IS COPYRIGHTED BY AMY BURKHART, MD, RD.
Dr. Amy Burkhart is a doctor (M.D.), Registered Dietitian, R.D., and fellowship-trained in integrative medicine. She specializes in treating chronic digestive disorders from an integrative/functional medicine perspective.