July 2008 Issue

Oats of Steel
By Carol M. Bareuther, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 10 No. 7 P. 38

A bowl of hot oatmeal is a nutritional powerhouse. Help clients harness the benefits of this whole grain meal with tasty topping and preparation ideas.

“The oat is the Horatio Alger of cereals, which progressed, if not from rags to riches, at least from weed to health food.”

— Waverley Root, Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World (1980)

A warm wake-up food, oatmeal offers the added benefit of being good for you. However, this hearty morning dish didn’t always hold such a well-respected place at the breakfast table.

Cultivated since the first century AD, oats were primarily fed to livestock. Ancient Rome’s famous author and philosopher Pliny the Elder dubbed them a diseased form of wheat. Fast forward a dozen centuries, and it may have been oats’ hearty nature that helped them thrive in the cool, wet climate of Scotland, where they were valued as a major food source. English colonists brought oats to America and planted them in Massachusetts in the 1600s. But it wasn’t until two centuries later that oats were hailed as a health food.

In mid-19th century America, tables began sagging under the weight of huge breakfasts designed to fill farmers’ stomachs. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America describes a typical breakfast menu during this era: “hot breads … bacon, salt pork, sausages, and ham … a few eggs, potatoes in many different guises, fruit in compotes or in sparkling jellies or preserves, and even a mild vegetable or two, along with pies or doughnuts … coffee, tea, or hot chocolate would round out the repast.”

Not everyone was fond of this heavy fare, which was also time consuming to prepare. Immigrants, especially the Scots, Germans, and Irish, remained loyal to the oats of their homelands. This made them the target of jokes until Ferdinand Schumacher of Akron, Ohio, a pioneer in oatmeal production and distribution, founded the German Mills American Oatmeal Company in 1856. According to the Ohio Academy of Science, Schumacher offered a rebuttal proclaiming that oat cereal contained every nutrient needed to keep man and child healthy—at a savings compared with the cost of meat—and was gentle on the digestive system. Schumacher’s words marked a turning point in oats’ history and effectively launched them into the health food category.

Today, Americans’ oat consumption is low in comparison to other grains, despite their health appeal. The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates per capita consumption of oats at 2.4 pounds—dramatically less than other grains. For example, rice has a per capita consumption of 14.9 pounds; corn, 18.6 pounds; and wheat, 94.6 pounds. One reason may be people’s tendency to think of oats only as breakfast food.

Oatmeal may be an underdog food, but it holds top dog status when it comes to the health benefits it serves up.1,2  Dietitians should educate the public about oatmeal’s many varieties and suggest fast, flavorful fixing ideas to boost their consumption and reap its benefits.

A Steaming Bowl of Good Health
Oats made health history in 1997 when they became the first food with an FDA health claim label. This decision was based on a review of research that showed the consumption of whole oat sources—oats, oat bran, and oat flour—decreased total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol concentrations in the blood.3

A decade later, the evidence that oats are heart healthy is stronger than ever. According to a recent study, “Additional data collected after the health claim was approved has not changed the understanding of the totality of the evidence.”1 The authors acknowledged that the precise mechanism by which oat consumption reduces cholesterol remains a mystery. However, a broad body of research mentioned in this article points to a plausible explanation: The viscous soluble fiber component in oats, or beta-glucans, increase bile acid excretion, which in turn increases bile acid synthesis and reduces circulating levels of cholesterol.1

A look back at the literature from the last decade reveals some intriguing additional ways in which oats work their cardiac protective magic. Mark B. Andon, PhD, RD, the Chicago-based director of nutrition for Quaker-Tropicana-Gatorade, says, “Like all plant foods, there are fellow travelers, or phytonutrients, in oats. These aren’t essential nutrients in the classical sense, but they do offer health protective benefits. While most people think of fruits and vegetables when they hear the word phytonutrients, whole grains are a potent source of these substances.”

In 1999, researchers at the Cereal Crops Research Unit at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service lab in Madison, Wis., established that whole oat products contain a class of phytonutrients known as phenols, which have significant antioxidant activity.4

A group of phenolic compounds unique to oats are avenanthramides, which occur in relatively high concentrations in the outer regions of the oat kernel. Since oats are normally consumed as a whole grain cereal, these compounds readily find their way into the breakfast bowl.

Andon says, “We do know that avenanthramides are bioavailable to humans and have been demonstrated in vitro to have the potential to affect a number of early atherogenic events.”

For example, in the study “Avenanthramide, a Polyphenol From Oats, Inhibits Vascular Smooth Muscle Cell Proliferation and Enhances Nitric Oxide Production,” published in the June 2006 issue of Atherosclerosis, researchers at Tufts University showed that the avenanthramides in oats can halt two crucial pathophysiological processes in the initiation and development of atherosclerosis. The researchers concluded that the “regular inclusion of oats in the daily diet may not only provide a benefit from its soluble fiber content in the reduction of cholesterol, [but] it would also provide these polyphenols, which we have demonstrated as having several antiatherogenic and anti-inflammatory activities.”

Avenanthramides work synergistically with other antioxidants. In animal research published in the June 2004 issue of the Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that the phenolic antioxidants in oats worked in concert with vitamin C to protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation. If this research translates to humans, it highlights another way in which oats could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It would also make a case for serving vitamin C-containing foods such as citrus fruits, cantaloupe, strawberries, and kiwi with oatmeal.

Like vitamin C, vitamin E is an antioxidant nutrient that may hamper the deleterious oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Vitamin E also plays a role in several other antiatherogenic mechanisms that take place at the molecular and cellular levels.5 Oats do contain tocotrienols, members of the vitamin E family, but  walnuts, almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, and macadamia nuts are richer sources of vitamin E. Sprinkling a few nuts atop a bowl of oatmeal could dish up double cardiac benefits.6

Research has also linked oat consumption with lowering blood lipids, body weight, and blood pressure, the latter two being risk factors for heart disease.

In a small study conducted at Tufts University and published in 2001 in the Journal of Nutrition, Saltzman and colleagues found that all 43 of their adult study subjects lost weight after six weeks on a low-calorie diet. However, the 22 participants who consumed a hypocaloric diet that contained 11/2 ounces of dry oats daily showed a greater improvement in their systolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol levels than their study cohorts who ate the same calories but without the addition of oats. The researchers concluded that “the combination of weight loss along with the inclusion of oats appeared to have an additive influence on reducing lipid concentrations.”

A growing body of research suggests that whole grains, including oats, may lessen the risk of type 2 diabetes.7 Oats especially contain viscous soluble fibers that not only interact with bile acids to lower cholesterol but also blunt the rise in blood glucose following a meal by delaying stomach emptying and providing a physical barrier to digestive enzymes and absorptive surfaces in the small intestine.1

So what’s the bottom line? What serving size of oats is recommended, and how often should one eat oats to reap all of these benefits? “A meaningful quantity on a regular basis—that is, not a little bit once in a while,” says Andon. “That’s why many FDA health claims have the verbiage ‘diets rich in.’ Oats should be a regular part of a healthful diet that contains other whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean protein sources for best results.”

The Ultimate Comfort Food
Comfort is definitely a factor when it comes to eating oats, says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for The Whole Grains Council, based in Boston. “Now they’re becoming an upscale food, too. Chefs have become aware of the popularity of whole grains in general and worked these ingredients into their menus in spiffed-up ways. For example, oatmeal brûlée has become popular. It’s torched till crusty on the top, just like a crème brûlée, and topped with fresh raspberries,” she says.

Oats are a whole grain. “Neither the bran or germ is removed from oats; therefore, all forms of the grain are similarly nutritious,” says Harriman.

The following is an oat vocabulary:

Oat groats: These are oat kernels with the outer hard husks removed and then toasted. Groats are the least-processed form of oats and take the longest to prepare. To prepare, rinse the groats and pick out any misshapen kernels. Combine 1 cup of dry oat groats with 2 cups of liquid. Bring to a boil, simmer for six minutes, and let stand covered for 45 minutes. This makes 21/4 cups. Presoaking the oat groats in cold water for one hour before cooking can reduce the standing time by one half.

Rolled oats: These are oat groats that are steamed, pressed with a roller, and then dried. They also go by the name old-fashioned oats. Prepare by combining 1 cup of dry rolled oats with 2 cups of liquid and simmering for five minutes. The yield is 2 cups.

Steel-cut or Scotch oats: These are unrolled oats that have been cut into two or three pieces. Like groats, they have a chewy texture. To cook steel-cut oats, combine 1 cup of dry oats with 4 cups of liquid and simmer for 20 minutes. This makes 2 cups.

Quick-cooking oats: These are rolled oats that have been cut into smaller pieces than the steel-cut variety and rolled thinner. This processing means they cook quickly. To prepare, combine 1 cup of dry oats with 2 cups of liquid. Simmer for one minute and let stand for three to five minutes. This makes 2 cups.

Instant oatmeal: These are oats that are precooked and dried. This form can be directly mixed with hot water to make a smooth, creamy-textured cereal. No further cooking is required.

How Do You Like It?
Everyone has a favorite way of flavoring oatmeal. Harriman says, “I like to cut up an apple and pear, mix it with rolled oats and a little cinnamon, and microwave. It’s like eating apple pie.”

Mark H. Furstenberg, chef and owner of The Breadline in Washington, D.C., and a visiting instructor at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, enjoys steel-cut oats combined with a multigrain cereal. “I’ll hydrate or soak this mixture on Sunday. Then all I have to do is add additional water and heat on Monday morning. I soak enough of the oats and grains to last until midweek so it’s not something I have to remember to do every day,” he explains.

As for flavorings, Furstenberg says, “In winter, I use dried fruits; in the summer, I use fruits like peaches and nectarines; and in the fall, it’s apples and pears. I’ll cook these with the cereal to soften them. I may [also] sprinkle a few nuts on the top—toasted nuts. Toasting really brings out the flavor of nuts. Like presoaking oatmeal, you can toast a batch of nuts in the oven on the weekend, store them in an airtight jar, and sprinkle them on your oatmeal throughout the week.”

Fruits add their own natural sweetness to oatmeal, yet Furstenberg may add other sweetening ingredients as well. “Maple syrup is wonderful but use the real thing. Always use real, high-quality ingredients, whether it’s maple syrup rather than imitation maple syrup or butter rather than margarine. This way, you get great taste, and you end up using less.”

Several other toppings for oatmeal include brown sugar, molasses, honey, jam, orange marmalade, maple syrup, mini semisweet chocolate morsels, butter, soy milk, skimmed evaporated milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, berries, mangoes, crushed pineapple, bananas, raisins, dried cranberries, chopped dates, canned pumpkin pie filling, pecans, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, peanut butter, fruit yogurt, wheat germ, and Grape Nuts cereal.

Heidi Swanson, author of Super Natural Cooking: Five Ways to Incorporate Whole & Natural Ingredients Into Your Cooking, says, “If eating oatmeal every morning for a week sounds boring, I’ve come up with seven suggestions for tasty accompaniments. Here are three of them:

1. “This is one of my favorite versions: Drizzle the oatmeal with pomegranate molasses and sprinkle with toasted walnuts. If it is on the tart side for you, add a sprinkling of natural cane sugar.

2. “Oatmeal pairs perfectly with just about any berry. Depending on the time of year, top with a handful of spring or summer berries, a drizzle of cream, and sprinkling of natural cane sugar and enjoy outside.

3. “Feeling decadent? Caramelize sliced bananas in a sauté pan with butter and a bit of natural cane sugar, and add to the oatmeal along with freshly grated orange zest, chopped toasted macadamias, and a capful of rum.”

— Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a U.S. Virgin Islands-based dietitian and a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, Caribbean Travel and Life, and Shape, as well as in numerous guidebooks. She has also published two books: Sports Fishing in the Virgin Islands and Virgin Islands Cooking.


Seven-Way Steel-Cut Oats

6 cups water
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
11/2 cups steel-cut oats

Boil the water in a saucepan. Add the salt and then the oats, stirring as you pour them in. Lower the heat and allow the oats to barely simmer, uncovered, for about 35 to 40 minutes. You want just a hint of activity in the pot as the oats cook down, like a sluggish lava field emitting only the occasional plop. As far as consistency goes, if you like your oats on the thin side, opt for less time. For more structure, cook a bit longer. Season with additional salt, as needed. Seasoning with salt is important; it helps the oat flavor really come forward, which is necessary even if you’re going to add a sweet topping.

Overnight, ready-in-the-morning method: Boil the water in a saucepan. Add the salt and then the oats, stirring as you pour them in. Remove from the heat and cover. Leave overnight. In the morning, reheat the oatmeal you want to eat (you may need to add a bit of water to achieve the right consistency) and refrigerate the rest. Serves 5 at once, or a workweek of tasty breakfasts for 1.

Reprinted with permission from Super Natural Cooking: Five Ways to Incorporate Whole & Natural Ingredients Into Your Cooking by Heidi Swanson. Copyright 2007. Published by Celestial Arts.


1. Andon MB, Anderson JW. State of the art reviews: The oatmeal-cholesterol connection: 10 years later. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2008:2(1):51-57.

2. Carlson A, Mancino L, Lino M. Grain consumption by Americans: Nutrition insight 32. USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. August 2005. Available at: http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/publications/nutritioninsights/insight32.pdf

3. FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Food labeling: Health claims; Soluble fiber from whole oats and risk of coronary heart disease. March 31, 1997. Available at: www.cfsan.fda.gov/~lrd/fr970331.html

4. Emmons CL, Peterson DM, Paul GL. Antioxidant capacity of oat (Avena sativa L.) extracts. 2. In vitro antioxidant activity and contents of phenolic and tocol antioxidants. J
Agric Food Chem. 1999;47(12):4894-4898.

5. Meydani M. Vitamin E and Atherosclerosis: Beyond prevention of LDL oxidation. J Nutr. 2001;131(2):366S-368S.

6. Maguire LS, O’Sullivan SM, Galvin K, O’Connor TP, O’Brien NM. Fatty acid profile, tocopherol, squalene and phytosterol content of walnuts, almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts and the macadamia nut. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2004;55(3):171-178.

7. Sadiq Butt M, Tahir-Nadeem M, Khan MK, Shabir R, Butt MS. Oat: Unique among the cereals. Eur J Nutr. 2008;47(3):68-79.