Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary defined oats as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.” The Scotsman’s retort to this was, “That’s why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such fine men!”
Oats (Avena sativa) have a sweet flavour that makes them a favourite for breakfast cereals. Unique among the most widely eaten grains, oats almost never have their bran and germ removed in processing.
Most oats are steamed and flattened to produce rolled oats, sold as “old-fashioned” or regular oats, quick oats, and instant oats. The more oats are flattened and steamed, the quicker they cook – and the softer they become. If you prefer a chewier, nuttier texture, consider steel-cut oats, also sometimes called Irish or Scottish oats. Steel-cut oats consist of the entire oat kernel (similar in look to a grain of rice), sliced once or twice into smaller pieces to help water penetrate and cook the grain. Cooked for about 20-30 minutes, steel-cut oats create a breakfast porridge that delights many people.
Scores of studies have documented the many health benefits of oats.
• Eating oats helps lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and may help reduce the risk of heart disease.
• Oats help you feel fuller longer, which helps control your weight.
• Oatmeal and oats may help lower blood pressure.
• Oats may help reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, since their soluble fibre helps control blood sugar.
• Oats help cut the use of laxatives, without the side effects associated with medications.
• Oats are high in beta-glucans, a kind of starch that stimulates the immune system and inhibits tumours. This may help reduce your risk of some cancers.
• Early introduction of oats in children’s diets may help reduce their risk of asthma.
• Oats are higher in protein and healthy fats, and lower in carbohydrates than most other whole grains.
• Oats contain more than 20 unique polyphenols called avenanthramides, which have strong anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-itching activity.
• Oatmeal rated #1 among breakfast foods and #3 overall in a “Satiety Index” created by Australian researchers seeking to find foods that make people feel full and satisfied the longest.
• Oats grow best in cooler climates with plenty of rainfall – conditions inhospitable to most grains. This explains why they’re so popular in Scotland and Ireland!
• The inedible hulls of oats can contribute to a healthier planet. In a joint Trade and University project, it revealed that oat hulls in a biomass boiler provide 14% of the energy at the university, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 70,000 tons a year – the equivalent of taking 1,200 cars off the road. As of early 2010, the program had saved the university over a million dollars.
• Oats are used in the food industry as a stabilizer in foods like ice cream.
• Because of their natural anti-itching properties, oats are used in the cosmetic industry for a variety of products.
• Oats were originally considered a nuisance weed, to be pulled up and burned when they appeared in fields of wheat and barley.
• In Britain, a warming and nourishing oatmeal broth drink was traditionally made from oat husks soaked until they soured; it was called “sowans” in Scotland, and “brewis” in Wales.
• Russia, Canada, the United States, Finland, and Poland are the world’s leading producers of oats.
• Oats are naturally gluten-free, but may be contaminated with gluten during growing and processing. Look for oats certified gluten-free if you are sensitive to gluten.
• Early attempts to promote oats as a good food for people – not just for horses – prompted editorials and cartoons poking fun at oat-eaters as likely to develop a whinny. Still, only 5% of oats grown worldwide are consumed by humans today.