Few grains have experienced the highs—and the lows—of oats. Disparaged by some as horse feed, lauded by others as a nutrition miracle; oats are a unique grain whose merits have finally won the day.
Oats’ Taste & Texture
Hearty in texture and often described as nutty in flavor, oats taste delicious alone or paired with healthful additions like dried fruit, nuts, and even dark chocolate. Oatmeal is standard breakfast fare in many cultures, and, lately, oats have found their way into granola bars, toppings, scones, muffins, and breads.
What’s Great About Oats
There’s a lot of talk about oat bran, but what is this part of the oat, exactly? As with other whole grains, it is the hard outer layer, which, along with the germ and endosperm, makes a grain “whole.” Oat bran is particularly high in soluble fiber and its consumption lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, reduces the risk of heart disease, and may even lower blood pressure in overweight people. Oat soluble fiber is especially high in beta-glucan, a substance that reduces cholesterol, which may explain why oats have experienced a resurgence of popularity in recent years.
Oats are no slouch when it comes to protein, either. Oat protein comprises 12-24% of the hull-less oat groat, or kernel, the highest among cereals!
Our oats typically come from within a 150-mile radius of a handful of mills in the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Oats are the nutritional backbone of our Heart to Heart® cereals, oatmeal and waffles, which help reduce cholesterol with 1 gram of soluble fiber from oats.* Go, beta-glucan!
Origins of Oats
Celebrated English writer Samuel Johnson once denigrated oats as “eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England.” Rumor has it that a clever Scot retorted with the following rejoinder: “That’s why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such fine men!”
Fortunately, nutrition science has proven the Scot right. Nevertheless, the long-time stigma imposed on oats may have delayed its cultivation, for the Greeks and Romans, too, considered oats to be a diseased version of wheat.
What is known is that oats are relatively new among grain crops; their cultivation goes back only several thousand years. (To give you a comparison point, wheat and barley can be traced back 10,000 years or more.) Oats, like rye, are generally considered a secondary crop&mdashlthat is, one derived from a weed of the primary cereal grains, namely wheat and barley. As older grains spread westward into cooler, wetter areas, oats may have emerged as a contender, leading eventually to domestication. Probably the oldest evidence of oat grains was discovered in Egypt among remains of the 12th Dynasty, dating back to about 2,000 BCE. The most ancient cultivated oats were found in Swiss caves of the Bronze Age.
Oats first migrated to North America with other grains in 1602, and were grown on the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. George Washington is known to have planted 580 acres of oats. By the 1870s, oat acreage in the United States had shifted westward into the middle and upper Mississippi Valley, its American center today. But the North American mother lode of oats is in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
The modern oat that is the foundation of your hot cereal or home-baked cookies is called Avena sativa. The wild ancestor of both A. sativa and a closely related minor oat, A. byzantina, is A. sterilis, which can still be found at its point of origination in the Fertile Crescent.
Oats Around the World
Oats thrive in temperate climates and tolerate rain better than other popular grains, so they’re pretty important in places like Northwest Europe where the summers are cool and damp. They’re an annual plant and can be harvested in late summer or early autumn.
But the real question is, how do you love your oats? The British use them for brewing beer (oatmeal stout is a favorite), as well as a traditional drink, oatmeal caudle, which is made of ale, oatmeal, and spices. The Scots prepared a dish called sowans by soaking oat husks for a week and straining off the floury sediment to be boiled. In Latin America, oats are ground, mixed with milk, sweetened, and served cold as a refreshing drink. Oats are widely used in porridge; baked goods like oatcakes, cookies, and bread; cold cereals, including muesli and granola; as a soup thickener; and even eaten raw. From horse feed to much-loved grain in just a few thousand years—not bad for a plant that started as a weed!
More 7 Whole Grains
Learn more about our 7 whole grains with these Grainipedia entries: