Oats 101 - A Buyer's Guide to Choosing Oats
Oats come in many different shapes and sizes -- rolled oats, steel-cut, oat groats, quick and instant. Sound confusing? What's the difference? If you're asking these questions, Lindsay Nixon, creator of Happy Herbivore is here to help. Her article, Oat Types, Rolled and More, describes each form of oat product and what purpose it serves in a recipe.
Below are the different types of oats, listed in order from the least to the most processed.
- Whole oats - A whole oat kernel is called an oat groat. After the outer hull has been removed, the whole oat kernel remains intact; therefore whole oat groats have not been processed. Allow approximately 50 minutes cooking time unless you soak them overnight, which reduces the time. Whole oat groats are very versatile and can be cooked and used for oatmeal, in soups, veggie/fruit salads, or mixed with beans and greens.
- Steel-cut oats are whole oat kernels that have been cut in half or into thirds using steel blades. Due to their smaller size, steel-cut oats cook in about 20 minutes, unless they are soaked overnight, which reduces the cooking time. Oatmeal is a popular way to eat steel-cut oats.
- Rolled oats are whole oat kernels that have been steamed and then rolled flat. Rolled oats that are thick take a little longer to cook than regular rolled oats. Depending on your preference, regular or thick rolled oats can be used interchangeably. Rolled oats can be cooked for oatmeal or used in recipes such as Lindsay's Muesli or Smoky Sweet Potato Burgers or eaten raw and made into granola or granola bars. Rolled oats take between 5-10 minutes to cook.
- Quick oats are whole oat kernels that are cut into small pieces and then steamed before being rolled into flakes. Their small size allows them to cook within just a few minutes. Lindsay enjoys using quick oats in her cookie or muffin recipes.
- Instant oats are whole oat kernels that have been cut into small pieces, rolled, and then precooked. Instant oats require little or no cooking, since adding hot water alone will soften them. Many times Lindsay uses instant oats to replace breadcrumbs in recipes. If a recipe calls for instant oats, Lindsay makes her own by chopping rolled oats in a blender or food processor just long enough to create smaller pieces. Instant oats are used in Lindsay's Quick and Easy Black Bean Burger recipe.
Whole grains such as oat groats are a vital component of a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet. Their nutritional profile supports a healthy weight and optimal health. Without a doubt, choosing whole food items or those that have been minimally processed offers the best protection against obesity and a myriad of diet-related illnesses.
To better understand why whole or minimally processed foods are better choices, notice how the cooking time is significantly reduced as the oat kernel becomes smaller and more processed. Each step of processing not only concentrates the calories, it reduces the whole oat kernel into a smaller, lighter, and finer particle.
The reduced cooking time is a perfect illustration of how our body assimilates food. Just as processing significantly reduced the amount of time between whole oat groat kernels and instant oats, the same is true for the speed at which our body digests and absorbs food -- the smaller the particles, the faster the absorption time. Whole oat groats cook slowly and are symbolic of how they are slowly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream -- keeping blood sugar levels steady. In contrast, instant oats require little or no cooking and are digested and absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream. Because small food particles and concentrated calories are quickly absorbed -- triglyceride, cholesterol and insulin levels rise quickly, resulting in blood sugar spikes and fat storage. I encourage my patients who are struggling to lose weight or reversing an illness to choose whole, intact grains over those that have undergone several steps of processing. For more information, see my Starch-Smart System.
**Note- oats are technically a gluten-free grain. However, those that are sensitive or have a gluten intolerance may want to purchase oat products with a "gluten-free" label since commerical oats are usually processed in facilities where wheat, rye and barley are also processed (which increases the risk of contamination).