The common oat (avena sativa) is a type of grain. Oats are eaten by people in the form of rolled oats, oatmeal, oat milk, oat bran and oat flour. They are also used to brew certain types of beer, such as oatmeal stout. In addition, they are used to feed livestock and make livestock bedding. Oats are considered a health food, and oat extract is used in some skincare products.
Like wheat, oats are a cereal grass. Oats require processing before they can be consumed by humans. They have an extremely hard outer shell, called a hull, which must be removed. After this is removed, the resulting product is called an oat groat. The groats are treated with heat in order to keep them from spoiling, and are cut into several pieces, creating an edible product called steel-cut oats. Steel-cut oats are flaked and steamed in order to make rolled oats; milled in order to make oat bran; and ground in order to make oat flour. Oat milk is made by soaking ground oats in water, while instant oats are made by pressing rolled oats very thin and then pre-cooking them. Oat extract is made by heating together oat flour and water to high temperatures and then spinning it in a centrifuge.
Whole or coarsely ground oats are used to feed cattle and horses. Oat straw is softer and less dusty than hay, and so it makes a superior bedding for cattle and horses as well. Steel-cut oats are used to make a dense, chewy porridge that is very popular in Britain. Rolled oats are used to make oatmeal and are often added to baked goods and cereals. Oat bran is also often made into cereal or added to breads and muffins. Oat milk is frequently used in Sweden as a beverage as well as to thicken casseroles and custards. In brewing, oats contribute a pleasant bitterness to dark beers. Oat extract soothes the skin and appears in soaps, facial masks and lotions.
Oats were first cultivated in Europe but are now grown all over the world, and are especially popular in Scotland and England. However, oats are not as popular a crop as wheat, and for generations were considered a "low-class" food. Today, oats are seen favorably because of their health benefits. As gluten allergies become more common, gluten-free grains like oats are gaining acclaim.
Oats are a good source of protein, B vitamins, calcium, iron, fiber, Vitamin E and zinc. Oats may also help lower cholesterol, and are low in fat. If oats are not processed with the same machinery used to process gluten-containing grains like wheat and barley, they are gluten-free.
Oats are a "cover crop," meaning that they are a crop planted in the fall after other crops have been harvested in order to keep bare fields or gardens "covered" throughout the winter. Cover crops help keep soil healthy by preventing erosion, protecting soil microbes, preventing weed growth and keeping soil fertile. This ensures that soil will still be high-quality when spring planting time approaches. Because oats are cheap and grow easily and quickly, they are a standard cover crop.
- Photo Credit Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé; Flora von Deutschland, --sterreich und der Schweiz; 1885; Gera, Germany
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