Oats: Versatile Whole-Grain Goodness

by Berkeley Wellness

The original cultivation of oats is somewhat disputed, though most sources place it about 2,000 or more years ago. With the exception of a few countries such as Scotland, where the grain has long been a staple food for humans, oats have been used primarily for animal fodder.

Brought to the New World by English colonists, oats were planted in Massachusetts in the mid-1600s, and were first packaged in the United States for wide distribution likely in the mid-1800s. Only a small portion of the oat crop is used as food for humans, mostly as oatmeal, and in only a few countries such as the United States, Canada, and Scotland.

Interest in the grain peaked in the late 1980s when highly publicized studies showed that oats—especially oat bran—contain soluble fiber that may help lower blood cholesterol. Encouraged by press reports and food manufacturers, many people came to believe that oats were a magic bullet against cholesterol. When other studies found the anti-cholesterol effect of a daily serving or two of the grain to be modest, there was a bit of a backlash. Since then, though, most researchers and doctors have come to agree that oats and oatmeal are healthy foods (unless served with lots of butter and syrup) and deserve a place on the breakfast table.

Oats: nutrition

Oats are hard to beat for nutritional impact. As a whole grain, they are a prime source of the complex carbohydrates that help to sustain energy. They contain about 50 percent more protein than bulgur wheat, and twice as much as brown rice. They offer impressive levels of thiamin, iron, and selenium, and respectable quantities of magnesium and zinc.

But it is oats' soluble fiber that captures the attention of many nutritionists. Oats are particularly rich in this form of fiber, which has been credited with helping to lower blood cholesterol levels. A cup of cooked oatmeal has 4 grams of fiber—about one-tenth to one-fifth of the total amount of fiber you should eat each day, depending on your calorie intake—and about half of that is soluble fiber.

Since 1997, the FDA has allowed the labels on oat products to bear the statement that this soluble fiber, when part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, “may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Some oat products sport the "Heart-Check" mark of the American Heart Association. Oats are the best source (along with barley) of a particular type of soluble fiber called beta glucan. This seems to play a special role in lowering total blood cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol—especially the small dense LDL particles that are most likely to endanger coronary arteries, according to research.

The fiber in oats has other benefits besides lowering cholesterol. Research suggests that oat fiber may also help control blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity and thus be a boon for people with insulin resistance or diabetes. But no one knows how much of it you have to eat to get a significant effect. Oat fiber may also help to reduce high blood pressure. Oats may also help to promote weight loss because they are digested slowly, leading to a gradual, steady supply of blood sugar (glucose), which keeps hunger in check.

For a full listing of nutrients, see Oats in the National Nutrient Database.

Types of oats

  • Oat bran: This outer layer of the grain, lighter and finer than wheat bran, is high in fiber and nutrients. It can be eaten as a cereal.
  • Oat flour: Milled from either the entire oat kernel or the endosperm only, oat flour is frequently used in ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. You can make your own to use in baking by grinding rolled oats in a food processor or blender. (1¼ cups of rolled oats will yield 1 cup of oat flour.)
  • Groats: These hulled kernels of oats have a nutty flavor, and are most commonly served as a main dish or side dish. They can be used as a stuffing for vegetables and poultry or to thicken soups and sauces.
  • Rolled oats: These are the familiar forms of oats sold in the supermarket. The grains are heated and pressed flat with steel rollers to shorten the cooking time. There are three types of rolled oats: Old-fashioned (the whole grain is rolled), quick-cooking (the grains are sliced before rolling), and instant (the grains are precooked, dried, and then rolled very thin). Be wary of instant oatmeal as it’s often packaged with extra ingredients such as salt, sugar, and flavorings.
  • Steel-cut oats: Usually imported from Ireland or Scotland, this form of the grain is made by thinly slicing the oats lengthwise. Commonly eaten as a breakfast cereal, steel-cut oats have a dense, chewy texture and take longer to cook than rolled oats. You can also add them to soups and stews.

    Oats: Cooking Tips and Recipe Ideas

    You can use nutty-tasting oats as a breakfast cereal, for coating chicken and fish, and to thicken soups and stews, among other uses.