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Know Your Oats!
Oatmeal has long been touted as an ideal breakfast. It’s versatile, warm, healthy, sticks to your ribs and tasty.
But how much do you really know about the humble oat?
Oats are a hardy cereal grain that probably originated in the Mediterranean region over 2,000 years ago; though the first archeological evidence of cultivation was from a cave in Switzerland. Oats are able to withstand poor soil conditions in which other crops are unable to thrive and so were a good choice for livestock fodder. They later gained popularity in Scotland and England for human consumption.
Oatmeal has been promoted as being good for being low calorie, high in protein and good for lowering cholesterol and blood glucose levels as well as being significant sources of dietary fiber. Studies bear this out.
Oatmeal contains a mixture of about half soluble and half insoluble fibers. One component of the soluble fiber found in oats is beta-glucans. The beta-glucans are the magic trick: here's how it works. Soluble fiber breaks down as it passes through the digestive tract and forms a gel that traps cholesterol-rich bile acids which reduces the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream.
The bad cholesterol, LDL, is trapped without lowering good cholesterol (HDL). Oats and grains are also one of the best sources of antioxidants called tocotrienols which inhibit cholesterol synthesis and have been found to lower blood cholesterol.
Eating oats causes blood glucose levels to rise at a slower rate. Once again, the beta-glucan plays a role. As the beta-glucan in the soluble fiber of oats is digested, it forms the previously mentioned gel, which causes the viscosity of the contents of the stomach and small intestine to be increased. This, in turn, slows down digestion and extends the length of time carbohydrates are absorbed into the bloodstream. This means dramatic changes in blood sugar levels are avoided.
Although oats are gluten free and studies have shown that many people with celiac disease can consume wheat free oats with no problems; they do contain Avenin which may be toxic to the intestinal mucosa of avenin-sensitive individuals. Oats can also contain gluten from nearby wheat field contamination and processing facilities.
But all oats are not created equal so it’s important to Know Your Oats!
Whole Oats - whole oats have a hard outer hull that must be removed before it’s ready for human consumption. Removing the hard outer hull is not easy, so if you want whole oats to eat, purchase them already hulled where they are known as groats.
Oat Groats are the whole oat grain, with only the hard unpalatable outer hull removed, but with the kernel's outer bran layer left intact. They are long and thin with a smooth shiny surface and look like brown rice. They can be eaten at this stage, but are typically processed into one of the forms below.
Steel-cut oats or Irish oats are made by passing groats through steel cutters which chop each one into three or four pieces. Since they still contain the whole grain including the oat bran, steel cut oats are very nutritious - but they do take longer to cook (about 25 minutes).
Rolled Oats are made by steaming groats and flattening them with a roller. These are sometimes referred to as old fashioned or thick oats. These are made by first steaming the whole groat for a few minutes, partially cooking it, then passing it between rollers to flatten it out. This variety of oats generally takes about 5 minutes to cook
Instant or Quick Oats are made in a similar fashion to rolled quick-cooking oats, except they are steamed longer and rolled more thinly. Instant oatmeal is typically packaged in envelopes with sweeteners, flavorings and other additives. It takes almost no cook time, just the addition of hot water. This is the most processed oatmeal and tends to have more calories (due to added sugars) per serving than unprocessed oatmeal. It also tends to be lower in fiber and other nutrients.
Oat Flour - Oats can be ground in to flour which usually comes in three grades - coarse, medium and fine. Medium oatmeal can be used in cakes and crumble toppings to give a nutty flavor, or added to soups as a thickener. Fine oatmeal flour adds a depth of flavor to bread and improves its shelf life due to the natural preservatives found in oats.
Oats gain part of their distinctive flavor from the roasting process that they undergo after being harvested and cleaned. Although oats are then hulled, this process does not strip away their bran and germ allowing them to retain a concentrated source of their fiber and nutrients.
For nutrition’s sake, whenever possible, stick to the old-fashioned or steel-cut oats. Old-fashioned oats require about 3 more minutes cooking time than the quick variety -- well worth it especially when you can create your own flavor combinations and control what goes into your bowl.
Prep Basics for Oatmeal
Cooking oatmeal is simple: Cook oats in water at a ratio of 1:2 (1/2 cup of old-fashioned oats, 1 cup of water). Add a tiny pinch of salt (unless you’re on a low-sodium diet) to enhance oatmeal’s toasty flavor. Put everything in a small saucepan, bring to a boil and cook for up to 5 minutes, or until the consistency suits you (less time for “soupier” oatmeal, more time for firmer).
Steel-cut oats take longer to cook, but they have a wonderful nutty flavor and toothy texture that makes for a hearty breakfast. As a time-saver, you can prepare a big batch on the weekend and refrigerate the oatmeal to use during the week or cook them in a microwave. For more instructions on cooking steel-cut oats, click here.
No time to cook in the morning? Oatmeal is the perfect slow cooker food. Simply dump all the ingredients in the pot before bedtime, and you’ll wake to a hearty breakfast. Here’s a link to a few great recipes.
Europeans have made oats a centerpiece of their morning meal for generations, notably in the mix called muesli. The idea is simple: stir together raw oats and milk, add a bit of sugar, cinnamon and dried fruit, let sit overnight in the refrigerator, and you have a hearty, delicious (and no-cook!) breakfast. Follow this basic recipe; feel free to add fresh fruit in the morning.
Creative Oatmeal Combinations
Though oatmeal is warm and comforting, all by itself it can be a bit dull. The good news oatmeal can really be jazzed up -- try one of the combinations below:
One serving of cooked oatmeal (about 1 cup cooked) contains 150 calories, 3 grams of fat, 27 grams of carbs, around 6 grams of protein, and 4 grams of fiber. The calorie figures listed below are for the additional items.
• 2 Tbsp. dried cranberries, 1 Tbsp. toasted pistachios, 1 tsp. sugar (115 calories)
• 2 Tbsp. raisins, 1 Tbsp. chopped pecans, 1 tsp. sugar (125 calories)
• 2 Tbsp. dried cherries, 1 Tbsp. chopped almonds, 1 tsp. sugar (115 calories)
• 1/4 cup blueberries, 1 Tbsp. chopped walnuts, dash of cinnamon (70 calories)
• 1/2 cup diced apple, 2 Tbsp. dried cranberries (90 calories)
• 1/2 cup diced pears and 2 Tbsp. dried cherries (100 calories)
• 1 cup diced apple, 2 Tbsp. raisins, sprinkle of cinnamon (140 calories)
• 1/2 cup fresh or frozen blueberries, 1 Tbsp. maple syrup,1 Tbsp. chopped toasted walnuts (140 calories)
• 1/2 cup diced apple, 1 Tbsp. raisins, 1 Tbsp. peanut butter (165 calories)
• 1 Tbsp. honey, 2 Tbsp. raisins, 1 Tbsp. chopped walnuts (175 calories)
• 1 Tbsp. honey, 1 Tbsp. peanut butter (160 calories)
• 1/2 sliced banana, 1 Tbsp. peanut butter (145 calories)
• 1/2 cup sliced peaches, 1.5 tsp. brown sugar, 1 Tbsp. sliced almonds, dash of vanilla extract (120 calories)
• 1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce, dash of cinnamon (35 Calories)
• 1/2 cup sliced fresh or frozen strawberries, 1 Tbsp. sliced almonds, dash of almond extract (75 calories)
• 3 Tbsp. of your favorite fruit spread or preserves (80 Calories)
• 1 Tbsp. chopped dried banana chips, 1 Tbsp. dry-roasted peanuts, 1 Tbsp. raisins (120 calories)
• 1 Tbsp. dried cranberries, 1 Tbsp. raisins, 1 Tbsp. chopped pecans (130 calories)
• Italian oatmeal: 1/3 cup part-skim ricotta cheese, 1/2 cup diced tomatoes (125 calories)
Updated December 17, 2012
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