It's well known that whole grains are an important part of healthy diet. Whole grains -- oats, millet, whole wheat and whole rye to name a few -- have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain cancers.
Whole grain foods are made from the entire grain seed - the outer bran layer where nearly all the fibre is, the germ layer that's rich in vitamins and minerals, and the endosperm that contains the starch. Whole grains can be eaten whole, cracked, split, flaked or ground. Often they're milled into flour and used to make breads, cereals, pastas and crackers. A whole grain can be a single food like oatmeal, brown rice, flaxseed, popcorn, kamut, millet or quinoa, or it can be an ingredient in another food such as bread, crackers or breakfast cereal.
The health benefits of whole grains go beyond fibre. Whole grains contain a package of nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fibre and hundreds of phytochemicals, natural compounds that have health benefits. The individual components of whole grains are thought to work together to guard against disease.
Research show that eating oats, oat bran and oatmeal helps lower elevated blood cholesterol level thanks to a special type of soluble fibre they contain called beta-glucan. The soluble fibre in oats also helps stabilize blood sugar levels by reducing spikes and dips, especially in people wth type 2 diabetes. Large flake and steel-cut oats (see below) are low glycemic foods, meaning they're slowly digested and gradually released as sugar into the bloodstream.
In addition to their high soluble fibre content, oats are also a good source of vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin E, iron, magnesium and selenium.
Oat bran - Nutrition per 1 cup cooked:
88 calories, 1.8 gram fat, 7 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fibre, 2 mg iron, 17 mcg selenium (RDA = 55 mcg)
Oats - Nutrition per 1 cup cooked:
166 calories, 3.5 gram fat, 6 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrate, 4 gram fibre, 2.1 g iron, 63 mg magnesium, 13 mcg selenium
All forms of oats are processed to some extent in order to make them more palatable and digestible. The degree to which oats have been processed determines how long they need to be cooked.
Rolled oats: Also known as old-fashioned oats, these oats have been steamed, pressed with a roller and then dried. Rolled oats are used in breakfast cereals, granola and cookies. They require about 15 minutes to cook, making them suitable for baking and hot cereal.
Quick cooking oats: These are rolled oats that have been cut into small flakes. They cook very quickly, in about 3 to 4 minutes, also making them suitable for baking. Rolled oats and quick cooking oats can be used interchangeably in recipes.
Instant oats: This type of oatmeal is made from oat groats that have been cooked, dried and rolled. They're very thin and only need to be mixed with a hot liquid to soften. Instant oats cannot be used for cooking or baking. Instant oatmeal is usually sold in single-serve packages. Although they're convenient, most have added salt and sugar. Choose an instant oatmeal that's low in sugar (ideally unflavoured or no added sugar) and low in salt. Read the label and look for brands that contain less than 6 grams of sugar and no more than 250 milligrams of sodium per serving (ideally no added salt).
Steel-cut oats: Also known as Scotch oats or Irish porridge, these are unrolled oats that have been cut into two to three pieces. They're very coarse; even with extended soaking and cooking they remain chewy (which many people like!). To cook, add 1 part steel-cut oats to 4 parts boiling water. When the porridge is smooth and beginning to thicken, reduce heat and simmer for approximately 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
No time in your hectic morning to cook steel-cut oats? Consider cooking a pot of this hearty cereal in the evening. Refrigerate and then reheat in the microwave the next morning.
Oat bran: This is the outer layer of the oat grain, so it's very high in soluble fibre. Sprinkle raw oat bran on hot or cold cereal for a fibre boost. Or cook oat bran and enjoy a bowl of hot cereal topped with berries or dried fruit.
Oat groats: These oats have been minimally processed; only their outer hull has been removed. As a result, they retain much of their nutrient content and are very chewy. Oat groats need to be soaked and then cooked for about 50 minutes.
Oat flour: Available at specialty and health food stores, oat flour is made from oat groats and is gluten-free.
When buying oats, purchase small quantities at one time. Although they are low in fat, oats are still susceptible to rancidity over time. If buying in bulk, make sure the bins containing the oats are covered and free of debris. Smell the oats to make sure they are fresh.
If buying oats in a package, make sure the package is free of any moisture. Check the ingredient list on packages of instant oatmeal for added sugar or salt.
Store oats in a sealed, airtight container in a cool, dry place. You may also freeze oats to extend their shelf life. Stored properly, oats will last anywhere up to one year if opened and up to 8 years if unopened.
Since different oats are processed to different degrees, they all require slightly different cooking methods.
- Instant oats - just add hot liquid and you are ready to go! Instant oats cook in less than one minute.
- Quick cooking oats and rolled oats cook in 3 to 5 minutes.
- If cooking oats on the stovetop, it's best to add rolled oats to cold water and then cook at a simmer. Rolled oats require 2 parts water to 1 part oats and take 15 minutes or less to cook on the stovetop.
- Steel-cut oats require 4 parts water to 1 part oats and take roughly 30 minutes to cook.
- Oat groats require three parts water to one part oats and need to be simmered for 50 minutes.
The versatility of oats means they can be incorporated into many foods. It's easy to enjoy the goodness of oats at breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
- Start the day with a bowl of cooked oatmeal. Top with slivered almonds, berries and a spoonful of low fat yogurt.
- Add raw oats to a breakfast fruit and yogurt parfait. Click here for my recipe.
- Stir raw oats into muffin, pancake or waffle batters. Click here for a recipe.
- Mix oats –cooked or raw – into lean ground beef or turkey when making burgers, meat balls or meat loaf. Click here for a vegetarina burger recipe.
- For a concentrated source of fibre, sprinkle oat bran over a bowl of hot or cold breakfast cereal.