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.

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54 Responses to Oats: A Case Study

  1. Gary April 23, 2015 at 11:52 am #

    Where do “Quaker Steel Cut Oats – Quick 3-minute” fall on the chart. It’s confusing since they are “Steel Cut Oats” however they cook in 3 minutes – instead of the 10-20 minutes you show for steel cut oats in your article. Are the Quaker Steel Cut Oats a good choice?

    Thank you,

    • Kristine April 23, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

      Hi Gary. That’s a good question. Looks like Quaker is mixing up the program by adding even more oat products to the shelves! Yes, I think they’re a good choice. The ingredient list shows only “whole grain steel cut oats”. Their “3-minute” claim applies only if you cook them in the microwave, which will always be shorter than stove top cooking time. However, their stove top directions say they only take 5 minutes. So my best guess is that they’ve been pre-cooked or pre-steamed to shorten cooking time.

      • Kate M. May 11, 2015 at 9:27 am #

        Which type of oatmeal is best in a baking recipe: quick or old fashioned oatmeal ? Some of my cookbooks are from the 30’s, 40’s, 60’s, & newer so just wanted to dbl check on your thoughts.

        • Kristine May 11, 2015 at 11:59 am #

          Hi Kate. That’s a good question, though I’m not sure how helpful my answer will be. I usually just use whichever of the two I have on hand, and I haven’t really noticed a big difference in the final product. So I think they’re nearly interchangeable. It depends of course on the recipe itself, how long it cooks (if it cooks at all), etc. Old fashioned would likely give a little more texture, like in an oatmeal cookie or a muesli. Quick oats would likely offer a little less structure but more of a thickening property. I’d be interested in comments from other folks who’ve tested this out in their own kitchen. I did some very limited research online and it looks like quick oats were introduced in the 1920s, so it’s possible your older recipes would work with those or with the more traditional old fashioned oats.

  2. Kristine Duncan February 15, 2015 at 4:24 pm #

    Steel cut should have a different cooked texture than any of the rolled (flat) oats. It’s going to be quite a bit more chewy, depending on how long you cook it,


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