In Samuel Johnson's dictionary, oats were defined as "eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England."
Scotsman's retort to this is, "That's why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such fine men!"
History of Oats
Archaeological studies show that oats have been found dating from about 2,000 BC, but these grains were probably simply weed seeds. It was probably much closer to the birth of Christ before, as the last of the cereals to be cultivated, oats were purposely grown in southeast Europe or Asia Minor. Before being used as a food, they were used for medicinal purposes .
Oats have a couple of traits that caused them to be less favored than other grains -- a bland taste and a tendency to spoil. Greeks and Romans considered oats to be diseased wheat, and many cultures believed them to be better suited to animals. Despite these issues, oats became a staple in Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and the Scandivian countries. It is from the debate about the palatability of oats that the comments from Samuel Johnson's dictionary stemmed.
Oats were introduced to North America with other grains by Scottish settlers in 1602. They gradually became a major crop until about 1920, when machines began to replace horsepower. Acreage previously devoted to feed oats has now been replaced by soybeans, a more marketable crop. With the advance of knowledge about nutrition, oats were recognized as a healthy food in the mid 1980's and therefore may become more popular once again for human nutrition.
Oats continue to be a popular grain in Northern Europe, particularly in Scotland where it is used in porridge and oatcakes.
Uses for Oats
Oats have a variety of uses. They are mostly recognized as an animal feed or for human consumption, but here are other known uses of the crop:
- Medicinal purposes. Protect against cancers and heart disease, enhance immune response to infection, stabilize blood sugar, sooth skin conditions and other ailments, as well as use as an antispasmodic, a diuretic, an emollient, a nerve tonic, a supplement, an aphrodisiac, and a stimulant.
- Agronomy -- Cover crop grown for a weed barrier or as a starter crop (natural herbicide), erosion control, ground cover, fertilizer, mulch and biomass
- Edible Energizer. One cup cooked oats eaten for breakfast helps stabilize blood sugar all day.
- Consumption. Whiskey, coffee substitute, hay, pasture, grain.
- Other. Cosmetics, fibers, paper, animal bedding, pillow filling, thatching. Hulls and waste products are used in the refining of lubricant oils and rosins, the manufacture of shoe dyes, herbicides, fungicides, and soil fumigants, and the production of nylon.
Oats, What's So Good About Them?
Oats have a high nutritional value. When harvested, oats need to have their hard hulls removed. When the hulls are removed the resultant product is oat groats. Further production involves heating the oat and rolling it flat. This product is called rolled oats. If rolled oats are pre-cooked in water and then dried they are then called quick cooking oats.
Oats contain more soluble fiber than any other grain. Soluble fiber is the kind that dissolves in water, so the body turns it into a kind of thick, viscous gel, which moves very slowly through your body. One of the benefits is that your stomach stays fuller longer, providing satiety. Soluble fiber also slows the absorption of glucose into the body, which means you are going to avoid those nasty sugar highs and lows. Last but not least, it inhibits the reabsorption of bile into the system, forcing your liver to get its cholesterol fix from your blood. This serves to lower your blood serum cholesterol. See what the Romans were missing?
Oats also have anti-inflammatory properties, and have been clinically shown to help heal dry, itchy skin. Oats are also highly absorptive, hypoallergenic, and help to soften skin. They have the best amino acid balance of all the cereal grains, and thus can be used as water-binding agents in skin care products. Oat grains and straw appear in shampoos, dusting powders, moisturizers, cleansing bars.
Oats: A Satiating Edge
Viscous fiber is dietary fiber that develops a thick, gel-like texture when mixed with liquid, causing it to take up more space in the stomach and intestines. This creates a feeling of fullness and, according to a new study, may be what gives hot oats a satiating edge. But oats aren't your only option: Barley, apples and seaweed are rich with filling viscous fiber, as well. Source: Nutrition Journal
Varieties of Oats
From least to most processed:
Oat groats, or whole oats:
These are minimally processed, only by removing the outer hull. They are very nutritious, but need to be cooked and/or soaked for a long period of time to soften.
This is the outer casing that is removed from the groats. The bran is particularly high in soluble fiber. Oat bran is very versatile, and can be used with groats or alone, and as an addition to baking recipes, or even raw in shakes.
Steel-cut oats, or Irish oats:
These are groats that have been chopped into small pieces. They have a firmer texture than rolled oats, and people in the know often prefer them for hot oatmeal cereals and muesli. A tip on purchasing steel-cut oats: some of the name brand varieties are prohibitively expensive, so search for them in bulk.
Rolled oats, or old-fashioned oats:
These are oat groats that are steamed and flattened with huge rollers so that they cook quicker, in about 5 to 15 minutes.
These are groats that have been cut into several pieces before being steamed and rolled into thinner flakes, thus reducing the cooking time to 3 to 5 minutes. While they cook quicker, any oat aficionado will tell you that they lack the hearty texture and nutty flavor of the less processed varieties.
These are made by chopping groats into tiny pieces, precooking them, drying them, then smashing them with a big roller. They need only be mixed with a hot liquid. They usually have flavorings and salt added. All of this processing removes all traces of the original texture and rich flavor of the groats.
Oat flour is made from groats that have been ground into a powder, and contains no gluten so it does not rise like wheat flour. It can also be made at home by grinding rolled oats into a powder in a blender.
Oat Treat: Shortcake Balls
1 cup unsweetened oat flakes or oatmeal
1/2 cup pitted dates
1/3 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (not artificial)
1 tablespoon Grade A pure maple syrup
Mix all the ingredients in a food processor for 2 minutes or until well combined. Roll into small walnut-sized balls. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator. They will last about one week.
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