Oats are a breakfast staple for many Australians, whether it's a bowl of porridge, granola with fruit or even in muffins.
Our go-to oat type is quick oats or rolled oats, but is there a nutritional difference between the two? And what's the deal with steel-cut oats?
First, let's take a look at the general health benefits of including oats in our diet.
"Oats are a source of whole grains, which means they come packed with a bunch of beneficial nutrients including fibre, B vitamins, vitamin E, minerals, healthy fats and antioxidants," Alexandra Parker, accredited practising dietitian from The Biting Truth, told The Huffington Post Australia.
Fibre is important for gut health and helps to keep our bowels regular.
"They contain a particular type of soluble fibre called beta-glucan, which acts like a sponge in the small intestine, binding to cholesterol so it can't be reabsorbed and instead passes through the intestine as waste. This in turn reduces your risk of having a heart attack," Parker said.
Oats also contain antioxidants -- that's right, they're not just in fruit and veggies.
"In fact, they're the only grain to provide avenanthramides, which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties that may reduce disease," Parker said.
"Oats generally have a low GI (depending on the type), so you will find they fill you up and keep you energised for longer. They also assist in stabling blood sugar levels," accredited practising dietitian from The Biting Truth Anna Debenham explained.
"Oats are naturally low in sodium (salt) and are one of the few breakfast cereals with no added salt."
"The difference between oat varieties all comes down to how much the original 'groat' has been processed. This in turn affects their taste, texture and cooking times," Debenham told HuffPost Australia.
All oats start off as oat groats, which are the whole, unbroken grains. Typically, they are then roasted at a low temperature before being processed into other varieties of oats.
"These oats are closest to their original grain form. They are made when the whole groat is cut into several pieces with a steel blade (it looks similar to rice that's been cut into pieces)," Parker said.
"This variety takes the longest to cook (around 30 minutes) and has a nuttier taste and a chewy texture."
The easiest way to make creamy steel-cut oats? Bring one part oats to three parts liquid to the boil, cover the pot with a lid, turn off the heat and leave to sit overnight. Your oats will be ready in the morning.
"These are whole oats that are first steamed to make them soft and pliable, and then rolled to flatten them to a specific thickness," Parker said.
"This additional processing means they cook faster (in around 2-5 minutes). Rolled oats tend to retain their shape when cooked."
"These are the most processed of the three oat varieties. They are partially cooked, dried, and then rolled and pressed thinner than rolled oats to allow the oats to cook more quickly," Debenham said.
"They often have skim milk powder, emulsifiers and other preservatives added to help them develop a creamy texture when you cook them. They have a more mushy texture, as they retain less of their shape when cooked."
Which oat variety is the healthiest?
While oats themselves are healthy, there are some more nutritious options that keep us fuller for longer.
"While all three varieties have undergone a different level of processing, resulting in various cooking times, tastes and textures, they are all nutritious options," Parker said.
"They are all derived from whole oat groats, giving them similar nutritional profiles. The few nutritional differences lie in the GI, fibre content and added ingredients."
Steel-cut and rolled oats have more fibre -- due to the minimal processing, most of the fibre has been retained in steel and rolled oats. This means they will keep you feeling fuller for longer, which can assist with weight management. Quick/instant oats have been further processed, which means they have a slightly reduced fibre content.
Steel-cut and rolled oats have a lower GI -- this means they have a slower release of sugar (from carbohydrates) into your blood. This give you a slow release of energy throughout the morning and keeps you fuller for longer. As opposed to more processed oats, which can provide a quicker burst of energy.
Steel-cut and rolled oats have less added sugars -- we often find that instant/quick oats have added flavours (especially the gourmet sachets). It's important to keep an eye out for added sugars (check for flavours like honey or apple and cinnamon and beware of dried fruits).
"Our recommendation is to choose traditional rolled oats or steel cut oats (if you have the time) as these are the least processed," Debenham explained.
"Naturally sweeten your oats yourself by adding fresh or frozen berries, banana, pear or apple with a sprinkle of cinnamon and some crushed nuts. For those who need some more sweetness, or who find it difficult to encourage your kids to eat oats, you can enjoy with a small teaspoon of honey."
The bottom line when it comes to oats is: whatever way you cut them, high-quality oats are a healthy food.
"The key to which is the healthiest option comes down to the degree of processing. The less processed the oat, the lower the glycemic index as your body has to do the mechanical work of processing it (as opposed to the machine doing this). The coarser the oat, the more nutrition they contain and hence the better they are for us," Parker said.
How to incorporate more oats into meals and snacks
- Make a yummy bowl of porridge using rolled oats, cinnamon, milk and grated pear or apple
- Make your own Bircher muesli with rolled oats, dried fruit, nuts and grated apple -- soak in milk/water overnight and enjoy with fresh fruit and yoghurt
- Enjoy a quick breakfast by mixing rolled oats with yoghurt and berries
- Add oats to your breakfast smoothie for a nutty flavour boost
- Add oats into your homemade baked goods (e.g. loaves, muffins, granola bars)
- Add oats to your soups or casserole to thicken them up
- Try using rolled oats as part of your crumbing for fish or chicken
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