The wonder of oats
Oats are one of the most commonly-produced cereals in the UK, and are a low-cost, nutritious and surprisingly versatile food. Not just for breakfast, they’re an ideal ingredient for meals and snacks throughout the day. Find out about the variety of oats available, the differences between them, and their impressive nutrition and health credentials.
Different types of oat cereal
All oat products start out as oat groats which are whole, toasted oat grains. They have had the hull removed but the nutritious parts – the bran, endosperm and germ – are still intact. With the bran intact, they take a long time to cook but they retain their shape and add texture to dishes making them a fantastic ingredient for stews or risottos.
Oat groats tend to be processed into more easy-to-use oat products. Except for oat bran, all oats are wholegrains. The difference between these products is that they provide different textures and have varying cooking times depending on the amount of processing they have had.
Steel cut oatmeal, are oat groats cut into two to four pieces with a sharp metal blade. They take around 15 minutes to cook, although you can reduce the cooking time by soaking them overnight. Steel cut oats are the least processed form of oat cereal and when cooked have a nutty flavour with a good texture. They taste great as porridge or can be used in home baking.
Stoneground oatmeal is made from oat groats that have been ground into small flat pieces. When made into porridge, it is creamier than steel cut oatmeal and can be cooked on the hob in around 10 minutes, or in a microwave. Stoneground oatmeal can also be used as a coating for fish or meat, stuffings and crumble toppings and if finely ground can also be used as a thickening agent for soups, sauces and gravies.
Most porridge oats we come across in the shops are rolled oats, also called old-fashioned oats. These are oat groats, softened by steaming and then rolled into flakes. They absorb liquid quickly so the cooking time is reduced to 5-10 minutes when making porridge or they can be eaten without cooking for more texture.
Rolled oats come in different thicknesses which affects their cooking time and texture. Jumbo oats are slightly thicker, have more texture and may need soaking or cooking before eating, while thinner options form quick oats which produces a smooth porridge in less than five minutes.
All rolled oats have a long shelf life of several months if you store them in a sealed container in a dry cool place. This is because the oils they contain have been stabilised by the gentle steaming process so they stay fresh.
Rolled oats have various uses in cooking. As well as the ever-popular porridge and overnight oats, they can be used for pancakes, baked goods, granola and even smoothies.
Instant oats are oat groats which have been finely rolled and chopped so they cook quickly. They are often sold in individual sachets or pots and you simply need to add boiling water and stir and they are ready to eat. Although they are convenient, they may not keep you satisfied for as long because they are quickly digested compared to rolled oats and oatmeal, and often include added sugar.
Oat flour is simply rolled or stoneground oats, finely ground into powder. It is often used in baked goods and can be used as a thickening agent. It is very easy to make your own oat flour by grinding rolled oats in a food processor.
Oat bran is the outer layer of the oat groats. It is not a wholegrain but it does contain plenty of fibre and antioxidants and is a particularly good source of beta-glucan. You can add it to your breakfast cereal for extra fibre or use it in baking for a nutritional upgrade.
A word about gluten-free oats
Oat grains do not naturally contain gluten, but oat products may become contaminated with gluten if they are grown in rotation with other gluten-containing crops such as wheat, barley and rye grains, or if they are processed in the same buildings. This means oats are not considered to be gluten-free and may not be suitable for anyone with coeliac disease.
However, certified ‘gluten-free’ oats are harvested from dedicated wheat-free fields and are stored and milled in wheat-free mills, and contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. This means they are safe for most people with coeliac disease.
What makes oats so good for you?
Whichever type of oats you choose, they are a nutritious option:
- Oats main claim to fame is their huge fibre content. A 40g bowl of rolled oats contains around a third of your daily fibre requirement. Most of the fibre is a soluble fibre called beta-glucan, which gives oats their main health benefits. Oats also contain some insoluble fibre such as cellulose and lignin, which are important for gut health.
- Oats are a good source of protein. They contain more than most other grains – a 40g serving of rolled oats contains 4.8g protein. This typically equates to around 10% of the daily protein needs for most women and 8% for most men, and can be bumped up further by using skimmed or soya milk and topping with chopped nuts.
- Oats contain essential vitamins and minerals, including manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium and several B vitamins.
- Oats contain certain antioxidants which are thought to have further benefits for health.
The possible exceptions to the rule are oat products containing sugar.
Oats offer the same health benefits as other wholegrains but, along with barley, they also contain a special type of fibre called beta-glucan which has proven cholesterol-lowering benefits: eating 3g of beta-glucan each day, as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, lowers blood cholesterol which is a risk factor of coronary heart disease.
When you eat beta-glucan, it forms a gel in the gut which traps cholesterol-rich bile acids. This means less cholesterol passes from the gut into the blood stream. Your liver then has to take more cholesterol out of your blood to make more bile, which lowers your blood cholesterol.
Beta-glucan and statins reduce blood cholesterol in different ways, so they can have an additional effect.
Food labels can claim that a food is cholesterol-lowering if one portion contains at least 1g of oat beta-glucan – a third of the amount you need each day. Some manufacturers list the amount of beta-glucan on the pack and, as the amount varies between manufactures, it is worth reading the labels when choosing your brand.
Ideas for cooking with oats
Including more oats in your diet doesn’t have to be all about porridge and overnight oats (although this is a very healthy way to start the day!).
Try out our specially-selected recipes below or simply add oats to your soup, crumbles, savoury coatings, cakes, scones, cookies and smoothies.