Oats: An Amazing Whole Food
By Stephanie Davidson, Nutrition; 3rd Quarter DC; Nu Omega Honor Society
Oats began to be grown as a cultivated crop about 2,000 years ago in Asia Minor. The crop came to America from Europe at the turn of the seventeenth century and was first planted in Massachusetts, on the Elizabeth Islands. By the late 1800’s, the primary oat-producing lands were the mid-western states of the middle and upper Mississippi Valley; today, they are grown primarily in Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Iowa. Oats are also grown throughout Europe and Canada.
According to Purdue University’s Center for New Crops and Plants Products, different oat varieties are planted and harvested at different times of the year: some in winter and some in spring. The plants are harvested with a thresher for both straw and grain. Livestock are fed with whole or ground straw and grain; only the grain is intended for human consumption.
The primary macronutrient provided by oats is carbohydrate, the human body’s primary fuel source, with eleven grams per one-half cooked cup (including three grams of fiber), but small amounts of protein and unsaturated fats are provided as well, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The primary recognized health benefit of oats is their ability to affect cholesterol levels. Researchers believe that this effect is a result of beta-glucans, a naturally-occurring carbohydrate compound with a specialized structure; the same studies showed that these compounds were more effective in whole, unprocessed oat products than when isolated. Another study showed oat products to be more effective against high cholesterol than even other whole cereal grains.
Another lesser-known benefit of beta-glucans is their distinctive immune-enhancing qualities. In laboratory studies, beta-glucans have been shown to improve the function of leukocytes, the white blood cells responsible for neutralizing pathogenic microbes, without increasing inflammatory response. These cholesterol-lowering and immune-enhancing functions combine to make oats a powerful dietary tool for lowering risk of many disease states.
Those going gluten-free can also enjoy the health benefits of oats. Although traditionally oats were grown side-by-side with wheat, due to increasing demand, these farming practices are changing. Several brands, including Bob’s Red Mill, now offer oat products that have been grown in fields protected from cross-contamination and certified gluten-free.
The nutrient intake is greatest when whole oats are prepared as a standard cereal grain by heating with water. This preparation can be made more “taste-friendly” by mixing in spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg, fruits such as raisins or apples, or even nuts such as almonds or walnuts. These additions can be made at any point of preparation, depending on the desired outcome.
Another way to enjoy whole oats is by toasting them carefully in a stovetop skillet without fat. These toasted oats can then be added to trail mixes with fruit and nuts or used to make granola. The key to retaining oat nutrients is to use them whole, with bran included; further processing removes key nutrients by stripping the bran away.
The two key factors to consider in processed oat products are loss of bran and added sugars. Rolled oats are processed to remove the bran, thereby reducing protein, fiber, and several key minerals. An example of a rolled oat product would be old-fashioned oatmeal cereals, such as those widely available from Quaker and most store brands.
The other important factor in choosing an oat product is to consider added sugars. A typical chewy granola bar contains forty-two calories from added sugars, according to the USDA. These added calories, as well as those contributed by added fats, greatly reduced the health benefits provided by the few oats the finished product contains.
So go enjoy whole oats for your health!