In recent years, the popularity of oats has once again started to grow, as research sheds more light on their positive health effects and their potential benefits in food, feed and agriculture.(1) If you are curious as to what those are, this article will help illuminate some interesting facts that you may not have known about this popular cereal grain.
The value of oat and its nutritional attributes has been acknowledged since ancient times.(2) However, during the 20th century, the global cultivation of oats decreased in favor of higher yielding crops, such as wheat, maize and barley. Today, oats represent only 1.3% of the total world grain production.(1) Luckily, the food industry is making a great effort to increase their use in new food products.(2) This can be attributed to numerous reasons.
The nutritional value of oats
The first thing that may come to mind when you think of the nutritional value of oats, is their fiber content. That, however, is only the tip of the iceberg, but a good starting point.
Oats contain both types of fiber: soluble, which can dissolve in water; and insoluble that cannot. Both have a positive effect on human health, while insoluble fiber also generally provides a laxative action.(3) Oats are comprised of 11% fiber, the same as whole grain wheat, but higher than whole grain brown rice (4%) and whole grain corn (7%). The ratio of soluble to insoluble fiber in oats is 58%, and much higher than in whole wheat and whole corn.(3) This is also the reason why they are particularly high in β-glucans, which are soluble fibers that may lower your cholesterol levels.(3)
Oats also contain higher amounts of protein, compared to other commonly consumed grains. Their protein quality is superior to that of other grains such as whole grain wheat and corn, as oats contain a desirable balance of essential amino acids.(3) What is more, oats have approximately twice the lipid content, compared to cereal grains such as whole grain wheat, maize, white and brown long-grain rice.(3)
Significant quantities of B vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6 and folate are also present in oats, alongside various minerals.
Oats and the human health
As is often the case, more and more studies centered around oats are being conducted and as they further our understanding of their effects on our health, they simultaneously create more questions. Here’s what we know so far.
A study suggested that consuming two to four servings of cooked oatmeal per week may decrease the risk of coronary heart disease by approximately 30%.(4) Meta-analyses have also shown that daily consumption of soluble fiber from oats lowers total cholesterol levels. On the other hand, clinical studies do not show consistent results when it comes to managing high blood pressure.(5) Consuming whole grain oats is further associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes in healthy individuals, but produced mixed effects in individuals who already had diabetes.(5)
Oats contribute to gut health, as they may positively affect the gut immune system, regulate the satiety-related gut hormones, increase stool weight and may even function as prebiotics.(5) A long-term dietary intake of oat or oat bran could have benefits for people with irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis, and may have anti-inflammatory benefits.(2) However, much remains to be learned about the specific effects oats have on our gut health, as this area is still being studied.(5)
Oats are used to treat a variety of dermatologic conditions, such as atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, pruritic dermatoses, sunburn and others.(5) There are even studies that hint at oats having protective properties against certain gastrointestinal cancers. Unfortunately, they are merely suggestive and further research is needed to determine if there is any truth to this.(5)
Oats and celiac disease
Oats are suitable for consumption with any dietary preference, even gluten-free. It was initially thought that gluten, which is the cause of celiac disease, is also present in oats. However, in the 1990s, several studies demonstrated that patients with celiac disease can ingest oats without any signs of intestinal inflammation.(1) Oats can even improve several aspects of the gluten-free diet by providing more vitamins, minerals and fiber, and reducing the salt intake.(1)
But for oats to be safe for celiac patients, their production must be free of gluten contamination, which is not as easily achieved as it may sound. Leftover grains of gluten-containing cereals may remain in the soil that is being cultivated, in organic manure, grain mills and factories.(1) As little as a few gluten-containing kernels per kilogram already lead to contamination levels far above 20ppm (parts per million), which is the amount of gluten a product may contain and still be considered gluten free.(1) This means that the oats must come from a strictly controlled gluten-free oat production chain.(1)
Whole grain oat products seem to have a positive impact on our health and can improve or even prevent some health-related conditions. More emphasis should be placed on educating the consumer about its health benefits, stopping the decline of oat production and increasing its consumption.(5) Having read this article, you are now well on your way to becoming part of the solution!
(1) Smulders MJM, van de Wiel CCM, van den Broeck HC, van der Meer IM, Israel-Hoevelaken TPM, Timmer RD, et al. Oats in healthy gluten-free and regular diets: A perspective. Food Res Int. 2018;110:3-10.
(2) Martínez-Villaluenga C, Peñas E. Health benefits of oat: current evidence and molecular mechanisms. Current Opinion in Food Science. 2017;14:26-31.
(3) Gulvady AA, Brown RC, Bell JA. Nutritional Comparison of Oats and Other Commonly Consumed Whole Grains. Oats Nutrition and Technology. 2013;p. 71-93
(4) Liu S, Stampfer MJ, Hu FB, Giovannucci E, Rimm E, Manson JE, et al. Whole-grain consumption and risk of coronary heart disease: results from the Nurses’ Health Study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1999;70: 412–419.
(5) Kris-Etherton P. Overview: Current and Future Perspectives on Oats and Health. Oats Nutrition and Technology. 2013;p. 427-37.