Why gluten-free oats are a cereal containing gluten

‘Cereals containing gluten’ are one of the ‘top 14’ emphasisible and declarable allergens or allergen groups mandated in UK labelling law.

The ‘cereals containing gluten’ are defined to be wheat, rye, barley, oats and their hybrids.

It has occurred to me that some people interpret ‘cereals containing gluten’ in law to mean “cereals when they have gluten in them” — but ‘Cereals containing gluten’ does not mean that.

‘Cereals containing gluten’ means “cereals which are defined to be of a gluten-containing nature”, and the main four are named above. 


The best analogy I can muster … 

We are all human beings — members of a bipedal (two-legged) mammalian species. A human being who loses a leg in an accident would still be a human being, and still be a member of a two-legged mammalian species.

‘Cereals containing gluten’ which have their gluten removed — or, as in the case of oats, protected from gluten cross-contamination — are still ‘cereals containing gluten’, as defined in law. They’ve just ‘lost’ their gluten. 

Gluten-free wheat starch is still an allergen, and must be emphasised on labels (look on your prescription GF bread, if you have any). It’s an allergen which has lost its gluten and non-starchy wheat components.

Deglutenised barley — for instance, in gluten-free beer — must still be declared as the allergen that it remains. Its gluten has merely been ‘lost’ (or ‘degraded’ / ‘digested’). Check your bottles of enzyme-treated GF beer: they will say ‘contains barley’.

And this applies to other allergens too. An egg with its white removed, is still ‘egg’, and that yolk left behind still has to be declared on labelling. It doesn’t become non-allergenic because it is albumin-free, just as oats don’t become non-allergenic because they’re gluten-free. 



Modifying one of the ‘top 14’ allergens by removing one or more of their constituent parts does not usually mean they stop being ‘top 14’ allergens or allergenic.

There are, though, exemptions. One is glucose syrup derived from wheat — this is considered so ‘non-allergenic’, it needs not be emphasised. 

You can read the exemptions in the FSA’s technical legislative guidance (pages 10–11). Others are dextrose, maltodextrin, and refined soya oil. 

Gluten-free oats are not an exemption.

So: Gluten-free oats are a ‘cereal containing gluten’ because they are a member of the ‘cereal containing gluten’ ‘species’ as defined in law, much in the same way anyone unfortunate enough to have lost a leg in an accident remains a human being. 

They’ve just lost their gluten. They’ve just lost their leg. No ‘species’ change has occurred. 

All oats are ‘top 14’ allergens. None are exempt. 



Some brands are failing to realise that if they use ‘gluten free oats’ they are using an allergen, and that even if this is the only allergen they are using, they are still not ‘allergen free’ or ‘top 14 free’, despite regular claims to the contrary.

Inexplicably, this even happens with brands who recognise that their ‘gluten free oats’ need to be emphasised in ingredients. (Not to labour the point, but they need to be emphasised precisely because they’re allergens. And if you use allergens, you’re not ‘top 14 free’. How is this difficult to understand?) 

This confusion is a risk to those with coeliac disease who also react to GF oats, and to those with oat allergy, who could be misled by any ‘allergy safe’ type claim.



Rename the ‘cereals containing gluten’ to something else. ‘Grass grains’, for instance. Removing any reference to ‘gluten’ in the top 14 instantly solves the problem, because gluten is irrelevant as far as the top 14 allergens are concerned. 

Alternatively: take oats out of ‘cereals containing gluten’ and make them a standalone 15th allergen. If a brand uses them and only them, they won’t be 15-free, but will still be 14-free.

And if 15 is too awkward now that we’re used to 14, then perhaps we could modify other groupings. Surely the three ‘seafood’ groups can be whittled down to two?

Other than that? I have no idea …. Over to you. 


  1. Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

    You have it in one, Alex – gluten is not an allergen and should never have appeared anywhere near the 14 major allergens. Its inclusion in that list has just caused confusion among those with allergies, coeliacs and manufacutrers for years.
    My vote would be for taking gluten out of the top 14 which, as you say, solves the problem in one easy move. Products can then be flagged as glutenfree or not irrespective of their ingredients – while products containing wheat can be flagged as containing a major allergen – wheat.

    1. Alex G (Post author)

      That’s an interesting proposed solution, by which I take it you mean taking ‘cereals containing gluten’ out of the top 14 … But how would you deal with rye, barley and oats if you’re suggesting just ‘wheat’ be on the list? Just not treat them as major allergens, exactly as per the American model and legislation?

      1. ruthholroyd

        Another point Alex is that the allergens are listed in order of severity and number of serious reactions. I don’t think rye, barley or oats would feature if we used that rule, but wheat definitely would. I think it just needs a separate gluten free regulation but I’m still confused about the gluten free oats that are still a cereal containing gluten… love a good debate

        1. Alex G (Post author)

          Listed where in order of severity? I don’t think that’s true …. I’ve only ever seen them listed alphabetically or seemingly randomly.

          I don’t think I can improve on my “if you lose a leg you’re still a member of a two-legged species” analogy, I’m afraid! Taking a leg off a human doesn’t change it’s ‘species’ type. And taking gluten out of oats doesn’t change its species type either. That’s the way to think about it, I think!

  2. ruthholroyd

    This is fascinating. I think we can learn something from looking at how America and Australia do their allergen regs. They just have wheat and a separate gluten free law. I’ve just written a blog on my thoughts on this as have been pondering how ours makes it seem to me that we actually have 19 top allergens! https://whatallergy.com/2023/01/top-14-19-allergens-gluten-free-cereals-gf-oats/

    1. Alex G (Post author)

      Will take a read! I wonder whether we need reconciled worldwide laws – but that said, different countries do have different dominant allergens, so perhaps it wouldn’t work. Thinks are very different in Korea and Japan, for example, where buckwheat is a problem.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. Please read our Privacy Policy and our Affiliates Disclosure in 'About' more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.