Oats: A Case Study

Kristine Duncan,  MS, RD, CDE, is a Registered Dietitian who’s been happily eating a vegetarian diet for 19 years.  She teaches nutrition at Skagit Valley College and lives with her husband, two dogs, and three kitties in Bellingham, Washington. She blogs at Veg Girl RD, and you can follow her on Twitter.

This is a guest post for October Unprocessed. If this is your first time here, welcome …and it’s not too late to join in!

(Click image for a larger view)

Groats.  It’s a funny word.  Could be a grumpy goat or a healthy whole grain.  Since this post is part of October Unprocessed and I’m a nutrition nerd, odds are it’s the latter.  (Actually, I’m also an animal-loving nerd, so really, it’s a crap shoot.)

I’m sure you’ve heard that you should eat less processed foods. Heck, as a dietitian, I’ve been doling out that advice for ten years. But, it’s kind of a confusing concept. At the most basic level, any change intentionally made to a food before it winds up on our taste buds counts as processing. It can range from dehydrating fruits to hydrogenating fats and the different types of processing can be straightforward or complex. Unless you’re living sustainably and exclusively from your own grain field, vegetable garden, and fruit trees, the truth is that you’re probably consuming processed foods. Join the club.

What does processing really look like? Let’s take oats as a case in point. If you’re a visual learner, please consider the photo at the top of this post. See if you can tell the difference between the many piles of oaty goodness.  (I’ll explain more about the piles in a minute…)

One of the most memorable quotes from the movie Super Size Me is this: “It is a matter of common knowledge that any processing that foods undergo serves to make them more harmful than unprocessed foods.” As a general rule, the more we mess with it, the worse it is for us.  So why do we do it?  Reasons for processing can be to improve taste, shorten preparation time, or increase shelf life, so it’s not all done with bad intentions. 

Oats are a perfect example of a food available in the marketplace that’s gone through varying levels of mechanical processing. They’re also a picture-perfect example of a healthy food, as their heartiness seems to be especially satiating in our bellies and their fiber seems to lower cholesterol in our blood. (In a country where the two-thirds of us are overweight and the leading cause of death is heart disease, that’s no small feat.)

One of the most common reasons oats and other foods are processed in the first place is to reduce cooking time.  Oat groats take 60 minutes to cook while instant oatmeal is ready in 60 seconds.  Nutritionally speaking, all the options pictured are considered whole grains, but the closer you get to the groat end of the spectrum, the better (good advice for all areas of life, I think).  If you’re not ready to dedicate an hour to your breakfast cereal, aim for the other oat options that are minimally processed. We use the brown rice setting on our rice cooker to make groats in the evening (while we watch Mythbusters or Wipeout or something else educational), and we’ve a got healthy breakfast for the whole week that can be reheated in the same time it takes to make the instant stuff. Check out my recipes for Cherry Maple Granola or Coconut Mango Barley Breakfast (just substitute cooked oat groats for the barley in this one) if you want to get a little grainy this month.

Here’s a quick key for the picture above:

Oat groats: as whole grainy as you can get where oats are concerned. Unadulterated. Only the inedible hull has been removed. Cooks in 50-60 minutes.

Steel cut oats: also called Irish oats or pinhead oats, these are just groats that have been cut into smaller pieces to speed cooking. Cook in 10-20 minutes.

Scottish oatmeal: another version of groats that have been broken into bits, only these are stone ground instead of being cut. Cooks in 10 minutes.

Oat bran: a high-fiber part of the oat that’s been removed and can be eaten separately. Oat bran can be prepared as its own hot cereal or simply sprinkled on your favorite bowl of breakfast to boost the nutrient content of every bite. Cooks in 2 minutes.

Old fashioned oats: groats that are steamed and then pressed flat. Increasing the surface area this way and partially cooking them helps you get breakfast to your mouth faster. Cooks in 5 minutes.

Quick oats: like old-fashioned oats, except rolled thinner and steamed longer. Cook in 1 minute.

Instant oatmeal: like quick oats, except rolled even thinner and steamed even longer. Cooks in 1 minute.  (This is the only product on this list that has been processed in an additional way – it’s had stuff added to it before packaging.  In the case of the “original” or plain flavor, pictured here, salt, color, vitamins and minerals have been mixed with the oat flakes. The popular flavored packets have all that, plus added sugar, which bumps up the calories.)

Oat flour: pulverized groats that can be used in baking, etc. This is still considered a whole grain because nothing was removed before the oats were ground into flour.

Remember, it’s all relative.  It doesn’t have to be all whole grains all the time.  If you’re currently eating quick oats, go one step to the left on the spectrum for October Unprocessed.  Chances are you’ll be amazed and delighted by the change in texture and you’ll have yourself a new favorite breakfast.  And if you go all the way to the groats, you’ll have a new favorite word.

, , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

45 Comments on "Oats: A Case Study"

Notify of
avatar


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Andrea
Guest
October 5, 2012 5:32 am

Super interesting! Who knew there was such a difference between them all. I typically go with the old fashioned oats simply as a time factor in the morning. But I think for October I’m going to try to take the extra time and go with the Steel Cut!

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 5, 2012 8:49 am

Hi Andrea. So cool that you’re going to try something new in the world of oats. Hope the steel cuts make you happy!

brista
Guest
brista
October 5, 2012 6:45 am

I’ve never even heard of groats! I have heard of Irish & Scottish but I thought they were the same as old-fashioned. Who knew? 🙂

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 5, 2012 8:52 am

Hi Brista. I know, most of us grow up with the familiar flat old-fashioned oat flakes in our cupboard. Hard to imagine that’s not how they started out.

Jacqui Gonzales
Guest
October 5, 2012 7:04 am

Thanks for the information! I have Steel Cut in the house, but I don’t like the texture, so I eat Old Fashioned most mornings.

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 5, 2012 8:54 am

Hi Jacqui. Texture is definitely an issue for me, too. That’s why I like the groats so much – very chewy and delicious.

Sunithi
Guest
October 5, 2012 7:33 am

Good Post ! I switched to steel cut a few years back and love it. Cook a larger pot & freeze extra portions. I may try the oat groats next ans see how it tastes. Me liking it is one thing & getting my family to buy in another 🙂 Thanks for sharing !

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 5, 2012 8:55 am

That’s a great suggestion. I’ve never tried freezing the extras. So handy.

Heather Jarman
Guest
October 5, 2012 7:36 am

I make Scottish oatmeal in England (my Scottish friends use medium oatmeal). My American friends love it when I serve it to them, but can’t find it in the States. Do you know where you can buy it there?

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 5, 2012 8:58 am

Bob’s Red Mill sells Scottish oats – you can find his products at most regular grocery stores and definitely at natural foods markets. Here’s a link to it: http://www.bobsredmill.com/organic-scottish-oatmeal.html

Heather Jarman
Guest
October 5, 2012 10:52 am

How exciting! I’ve emailed the link to one of my friends and I’ll look for it myself when I visit my sister in LA. Thanks so much.

Christina
Guest
October 5, 2012 7:38 am

Love this post! I always wondered what the differences were. I currently eat old fashioned oats daily for breakfast, but I’ve made steel-cut oats in the past. I’ll have to break out the slow cooker to make that more often!

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 5, 2012 8:59 am

The slow cooker is a good idea. So much easier to just turn it on and forget about it until it’s done!

Cheryl
Guest
Cheryl
October 5, 2012 7:43 am

I eat oatmeal nearly every day. My usual method is old fashioned oats with a tablespoon of ground flax and a tablespoon of raw sunflower seeds added. I just add really hot water and let it sit for a minute or two. I add a drizzle of local honey for my allergies. Yum! My new favorite way to eat oats is the pancake recipe I found here at Eating Rules. Here’s the link: http://www.eatingrules.com/2010/05/healthy-pancakes-that-taste-good/

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 5, 2012 9:02 am

That’s another great way to include this healthy food, especially for kids or other folks who might not enjoy a bowl of oatmeal. Pretty much everyone likes pancakes!

maryf@pcski.com
Guest
October 5, 2012 7:44 am

Started eating steel cut oats last month with project healthy with DJ Waldow, LOVE them! You can do the night before to save time. Love the idea of using my brown rice cooker!
Thanks!

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 5, 2012 9:04 am

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Mary. It is so convenient to make them ahead so they’re ready to go in the morning.

Jon
Guest
Jon
October 5, 2012 7:49 am

Thanks for the post! I like to make steel cut oats in my slow cooker on a Sunday night, with dried fruits added, plus a little cream. It comes out perfect for Monday AM. Groats must come out pretty well in the same way. I’d like to give it a try!

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 5, 2012 9:05 am

So you put the dried fruit in while it’s cooking? That’s a great idea. It would really cut down on prep time Monday morning – you’d be ready to eat in a jiffy!

Austin D
Guest
October 5, 2012 8:07 am

Thanks for the info! Here’s something else you can do to oats to make them more digestible– FERMENT THEM! Here is a recipe/technique.
http://fermentersclub.com/porridge

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 5, 2012 9:06 am

Cool! Something new to try with oats. Thanks for the tip.

Austin D
Guest
October 5, 2012 1:13 pm

You’re welcome. One other thing to mention is that after soaking/fermenting, the steel cut oats only take 5 minutes to cook!

Annie
Guest
Annie
October 5, 2012 10:33 am

Steel cut oats taste so much better than old-fashioned or rolled oats. They are delicious. I’ve gotten so accustomed to steel cut that old-fashioned oats basically taste like paper to me, and I think the instant stuff is inedible.

Bob’s Red Mill does quick cooking steel cut oats which are broken down into even smaller pieces — they cook in about 8 minutes or so.

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 5, 2012 10:40 am

Thanks for your comment, Annie. 8 minutes is pretty reasonable, considering you’re still getting a whole grain for breakfast.

Michelle
Guest
Michelle
October 5, 2012 12:52 pm

The bag I have says “Large Flake 100% rolled whole grain oats” and they look like the old fashioned oats in the above photo, but the coooking time is considerably longer at 14-16 minutes.

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 5, 2012 1:37 pm

Hmmm…I haven’t come across those. Just a guess, but I wonder if they take longer to cook because of the larger sized flake? I’ll have to keep my eye out for them at the store.

Teresa
Guest
October 5, 2012 1:17 pm

I just bring a pot of oat groats, water, and sea salt to a boil in the evening. Cover, turn off the stove, and let them sit overnight. They usually only need 5-10 minutes in the morning. Thanks for the post! Groats are great for other meals, too.

Lp johnson
Guest
October 5, 2012 7:17 pm

I had to check blood sugars post meals with my last pregnancy. Steel cut was ok for my sugar, anything more processes spiked it significantly. FYI for readers concerned with sugar/insulin response.

Kristine Duncan
Member
October 6, 2012 11:05 am

That’s very interesting. We always tell patients that blood sugar response can be an individual thing. If you have a way to track it, like with a blood sugar monitor, you can really see how your body responds to different carbohydrate sources.

wpDiscuz