Coeliac patients, who are normally restricted to a gluten-free diet, can safely eat moderate amounts of oats, says new research in this month's journal GUT.
People with the gut disorder coeliac disease are prevented from eating wheat and rye because of their gluten content. The protein contained in oats is similar to gluten, which means that oats are often also removed from the diet.
The allergy to gluten causes a reaction in the small intestine, and means that foods containing wheat and other grains are poorly absorbed, leading to pain in the patients.
A team of Finnish researchers, led by Dr Uusitupa from the University of Kuopio, had previously discovered that moderate oat consumption over a period of six to twelve months did not result in significant increases in symptoms of coeliac disease. They continued their study to find out whether the effect was maintained over a longer period.
Monitoring 63 patients from the previous study for a further four and a half years, the researchers allowed 28 to follow a gluten-free diet while 35 ate moderate amounts of oats (usually twice a week).
After five years, tissue samples from their small intestines were assessed.
The researchers found that equal levels of improvement occurred in both groups of patients in terms of duodenal mucosal structure and the presence of inflammatory cells in the same area. Antibody levels were also similar between the groups.
The study authors said: "The reason why coeliac disease patients can tolerate oats must be based on structural differences of proteins among oats, wheat, barley and rye…It is possible that the absence of certain amino acid sequences found in wheat gliadin, but not in oat avenin, make oats tolerable to coeliac patients."
Dr Uusitupa's team suggest that by adding oats to a gluten-free diet, patients can increase their choice of food and therefore are more likely to avoid wheat and other foods containing gluten.