If you're a dedicated reader of nutrition labels, you might have noticed that the labels for oatmeal and oat bran products have a lot of similarities. Both are notable for their high levels of fiber and vitamins, and you're likely to see some reference to oats' value in a heart-healthy diet somewhere on the label. Although they offer many of the same benefits, oat fiber is not the same as oatmeal. Oatmeal contains the entire oat, while fiber is simply one of its parts.
Most cultures don't value oats as highly as other grains, despite their high nutritional value. They're richer in proteins and healthy natural oils than most other grains, but unfortunately they also contain an enzyme that rapidly makes those oils turn rancid. Before oats can be stored or milled, that enzyme must be deactivated. That's accomplished by heating the oats, par-cooking them with steam. The par-cooked grains are referred to as "groats," and whole oat groats can often be found in bulk or health-food stores. Usually, though, they're processed further for retail sale.
Sometimes, the whole groats are simply chopped into pieces, so they'll cook more quickly. That yields steel-cut or "Irish" oats, which resemble cracked wheat and make excellent porridge. Alternatively, the whole groat can be pressed between rollers while it's still hot from the steam, which produces the familiar large-flake form of rolled oats. Smaller, quick-cooking oatmeal is made by first cutting the whole groat into steel-cut oats, then by pressing the cut pieces into flakes. Oatmeal in each of these forms is a whole grain, as defined by the Whole Grains Council, because it contains the entire content of the original kernel, in its original proportions.
Branned for Life
Some culinary and industrial uses for oats don't require the whole grain. Often, the protective outer seed coat or bran is milled off and sold separately. Bran is just part one part of the kernel and therefore isn't a whole-grain product, but when used as an ingredient, it adds precisely those elements -- fiber, oils and B-vitamins -- that are missing from processed foods. This gives the finished product a nutritional profile that comes much closer to matching the health benefits of whole grains.
Working Oats in
Cooking time for your morning oatmeal varies, depending on what kind of oats you buy. Instant and "one-minute" oats take next-to-no time. Regular oats cook in 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how creamy you like them, and steel-cut oats can take 20 to 30 minutes. Regular or quick-cooking oats are a healthy baking ingredient, as well. Use regular oats when you want a chewiness, or quick-cooking oats for a lighter texture. Steel-cut oats aren't well suited for baking, but make a fine alternative to rice and other grains in salads and pilafs. Add oat bran to your baked goods along with the other dry ingredients to pump up the fiber and nutrition. You can also stir it into your cereal, if you wish, to double down on its heart-healthy oatiness.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- Whole Grains Council: Oats -- January Grain of the Month
- Whole Grains Council: Types Of Oats
- Photo Credit marekuliasz/iStock/Getty Images
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