Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary deﬁned oats as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Wow, that seems kind of mean!!
However, the Scotts are said to have replied “That’s why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such ﬁne men!” (Sabaash, seriyana potti – a.k.a perfect response)
Oats – The ‘late bloomer’ grain
Oats was the last of the major cereal grains to be domesticated, around 3,000 years ago in Europe. Most of the places, where it was grown earlier – the Himalayas, the Maghreb region, etc, – it was either grown in the wild or primarily grown as animal fodder.
So, why is it that oats were so late to be embraced as people-food?
Oats has relatively high fat content and fat-digesting enzyme
Almost every food ingredient’s success or failure can be traced back to how well it can be stored (shelf life). Oats’ late start can be attributed to that concept as well.
Oat is a good source of lipids. McGee, in ‘On food and cooking’ states that oats contain from 2 to 5 times the fat than wheat does, It also carries a large amount of a fat-digesting enzyme, lipase which are capable of acting under low moisture condition.
If not controlled, these lipases can cause rancidity and short storage life unless they process the grain properly soon after harvesting. The traditional preparation of oats for human consumption is also more laborious than that of wheat. So, it took a while for the industrial processes to catch up. Hence Oats – ends up being a late bloomer – but…what a beauty it turned out to be!!
Superpower of Oats: High Nutrient levels
Time and again whenever I research for the levels of some nutrient across different grains, I am always blown away by the fact that oats will always be there somewhere in the highest.
I’ll look up say Calcium levels – “Oh, yeah, Oats is better.” I’ll look up iron levels, the same thing “Yup…Oats is better.”
Even with the protein profile: grains, in general, are said to be low in 1 particular essential amino acid – Lysine (which is why you add beans to a vegetarian diet). Guess which grain has some of the highest lysine levels? – Oats again!!
Just look at the chart above… Impressive numbers for protein, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorous, Zinc, Folate, etc…It almost looks like a multi-vitamin tablet wrapped up in a grain format, right?
Why is Oats so rich with nutrients??
Oats grain does not break as cleanly into Endosperm, germ, and bran like rice or wheat
Think of rice – you have white rice and brown rice. Think of wheat – you have refined flour and whole wheat flour. If you can separate the endosperm alone (where most starch resides) and very little of the outer coating, then the grain stays fresh for a very long time. However, most of the valuable nutrients are in the outer layers of the grain which gets polished off. But in oats, the grain is softer and does not break cleanly into endosperm, bran and germ.
So, the types of oats you get will be based on the way the grain is cut and not the way the grain is split (e.g steel cut, or rolled oats, even instant oats). This means you get a lot more nutrition with oats (since it carries all the layers). So, hooray to oats being so stuck to its grain layers!!
Soluble Fiber: Oats’ other magic weapon
Chances are if you are interested in oats, you have heard about beta-glucan. What is it? It is a water-soluble dietary fiber. To explain in simple terms: When the beta glucans in the soluble dietary fibers of the oats passes through the stomach, it forms a gel. This makes the contents of the stomach and the small intestine more viscous, so it acts like a net.
This ‘viscous net’ then traps cholesterol-related particles and escorts them out of the body. They are then passed, harmlessly, out of the body. This helps reduce the reabsorption of bile back into the body.
It is this – the high viscosity of oat beta glucan that produces a cholesterol-lowering effect. Here’s a video that demonstrates this effect:
” The FDA states [..] a daily intake of 3 g of soluble oat β-glucan can lower the risk of coronary heart disease. It is also known to reduce blood cholesterol levels. Dietary fibers, particularly oat β-glucan has potential anti-cancerous property, as they reduce compounds which are causative agents of colon cancer, reduce blood cholesterol level and reduce blood pressure. “
So, this superpower of oats – the beta glucan, makes it especially good for folks suffering from high cholestrol, high BP and other heart related issues.
By the way, don’t take soluble fiber for granted. There are very few natural sources of soluble fiber – oats and barley being among the few available sources. Check out Soluble and Insoluble fibers link to see how skewed most grains, vegetables are towards having more insoluble fibers rather than soluble fibers.
Is Oats good for celiac patients?
Oats is naturally gluten-free. Even so, some people who have celiac disease are sensitive to a particular protein component in oats.
(This is a very complicated topic, but I am adding this info just to round out all aspects of information)
There are a handful of gluten intolerant folks who can’t eat even the purest of oats. Why not? It’s not about gluten, but rather about the molecular composition of oats themselves. Oats contain a protein called avenin, to which some people are intolerant or even allergic.
The avenin content in oats (10–15 % of the total protein) is rather low as compared to wheat (40–50 %), rye (30–50 %), and barley (35–45 %). So, on a comparative basis of avenin levels, oats is still better than wheat, rye, and barley.
Obviously, a majority of people will have no problems consuming oats. However, for the people who are sensitive, there is a really informative post on Bob’s Red Mill website explaining all of this.
Is Oats good for diabetics?
Let us first consider the glucose response of people to different types of oats (steel cut, instant) etc. Then we will compare oats with other grains.
In the paper “Systematic review of the effect of processing of whole grain oat cereal on glycemic response“, it was found the GI for various types of oats were:
- Steel-cut oats 55
- Large-flake oats 53
- Muesli and granola 56
- Quick-cooking oats 71
- Instant oatmeal 75
Remember, the higher the GI, the worse for diabetics (100 being worst). Glycaemic response to porridges made from steel-cut and large-ﬂake oats was significantly lower than that for instant oatmeal.
According to the authors, “The difference is probably related to the smaller particle size, increased degree of physical disruption of the groat structure during milling, and increased starch gelatinization during the production and cooking of oatmeal.”
So, if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic, stick to steel-cut and large-ﬂake hot oatmeal porridges, muesli and granola and avoid instant and quick-cooking oats.
But how does the Glycemic Index (GI) of steel cut oats compare to other grains?
- Steel Cut Oats 55
- Barley 28
- White Rice 73
- Brown Rice 68
This result matches with the overall fiber levels (both soluble + insoluble) listed in the chart above.
Total Fiber in g (per 100g serving):
- Oats 10.6
- Wheat 12.2
- Rice 1.3
- Barley 17.3
- Rye 15.1
So, steel-cut oats (GI 55) is certainly a good option. It is much better than rice and even wheat flour chapati (GI 62). If you really want to reduce your glucose levels, stick to whole grains (not flours), the best of which is barley.
In the grain family, each grain has its own feature/ personality. For eg., ragi is just off the charts with Calcium. But then, it comes with its own problems – High GI, unique taste profile etc. Rice is so tasty, but it is clearly established that eating white rice regularly raises the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Oats seems to be one of the more balanced grains of the lot. Not that it is perfect, but it seems to, nutritionally, at least be a really good grain to be a part of your daily or weekly diet. Its advantages are:
- Great source of macronutrients mainly – protein and micronutrients (minerals) – like Calcium, Iron, Zinc
- Great food option for folks with high cholesterol and heart issues – due to the presence of soluble fiber – beta-glucans
- A decent option for diabetics who keep their blood sugar under control already.
I hope you found this information about oats useful. Now that we have seen how awesome oats are, let’s look at ways to cook and use them regularly. Are you stuck with sweet porridge or oats idli dosa only as options?
Stay tuned to Oats part 2 for some unique ways to use the oats in your pantry.
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My absolute favorite book to start any food based research has to be: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee.
I am not a nutritionist/nurse/doctor. I am just an engineer who studies numbers and reports them. Consult your doctor before making any major changes to your diet.