Wild about oats

This ancient grain achieved iconic status as a main ingredient in Anzac biscuits, and now it’s being rediscovered as a superfood

Oats are an integral part of our history and in particular the South Island’s Scottish heritage. They’ve achieved iconic status as a main ingredient in Anzac biscuits, and now they’re being rediscovered as a superfood. Deirdre Coleman takes a closer look at this ancient grain

Image by mhall209 via Flickr

Oats have been around for millennia, but they’ve rarely enjoyed the credit they deserve. The Romans saw them as only suitable for animal fodder, but the ancient Greeks happily ate them for dessert. In his 1755 tome, A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson derisively defined oats as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.” The Scottish comeback: “That’s why England has such fine horses and Scotland such fine men.”

Today we still eat only about five percent of the total global oat harvest, with the USA, Canada and Russia the world’s main producers. In the late 1980s, oats were part of a dietary-fibre health craze that saw their consumption temporarily rocket; muesli went mainstream and muesli bars arrived on the scene, remaining a lunch-box favourite to this day. Now oats are enjoying a well-earned revival, thanks to their great taste, value for money – and recently discovered health benefits.

From humble porridge to superfood

They’re not as colourful as blueberries or salmon, but oats are right up there in the line-up of superfoods.

All cereals contain carbohydrates, protein, water, fat, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. But oats have a higher protein content (15–20 percent) than many other cereals and a better balance of essential fatty acids. They also have one of the best amino acid profiles of any grain.

Like other grains and vegetables, oats contain phytochemicals, many of which have antioxidant properties. They’re also packed with B vitamins and high levels of calcium, potassium, zinc and magnesium. Oats contain significant amounts of both soluble and insoluble dietary fibre, which are necessary for healthy gastrointestinal function. Beta-glucan, a component of that soluble fibre, is believed to help lower cholesterol, speed up the response to infection and stabilise blood sugar levels. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, beta-glucan may play a role in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease.

Rolled oats have a glycaemic index (GI) rating of just 55, meaning the carbohydrates break down slowly and gradually enter the bloodstream without causing sugar spikes that result in fat storage. Low-GI foods also help you feel full for longer, aiding weight loss. “It’s the fibre in oats that fills you up,” says Matt Mays, new product development manager at Hubbards, “and that makes Established in 1867 by Henry Harraway, Harraways still operates from its original site in Green Island, Dunedin for a great breakfast, giving you energy throughout the morning. Nutritionally, oats are a wonderful grain.”

The great grain

Oats are derived from wild grasses and grow well in cool, moist climates. They became a staple in Scotland, with oatmeal forming a key ingredient in haggis, Scottish Caboc cheese and Highland black pudding. Scottish immigrants first brought oatmeal porridge to our shores in the 1800s. They discovered that the heavy, moisture-retaining soils of Otago and Southland – where many of them settled – were well suited to oat cultivation, and most of our oats are still grown there today. By 1905, New Zealand was producing around 275,000 tonnes of oats, most for use as horse feed. As tractors replaced horses, oat production plummeted. But New Zealand kids continued to enjoy them – porridge oats, including the popular Creamoata, were considered the national breakfast.

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Today, just one Kiwi company continues to mill oats. More than 140 years after it began, Harraways is still privately owned and operating from its original site in Green Island, Dunedin. Founded by Henry Harraway during the 1860s gold rush, it’s our country’s only remaining oat mill. In 1893, an oat-roller milling plant replaced the stone grinder and breakfast cereal production began, says Rosalind Goulding from Harraways.

One thousand tons of oatmeal was processed in that first year alone. “We still mill our oats in a very traditional way,” she says, “using vertical milling, which is highly energy-efficient.” Harraways uses the inedible husks that surround the oats to fuel its boilers. Any excess is sold to local businesses or composted.

One grain, many names

The harvested oats travel up a five-level- high gantry and gravity moves them through the milling process. First the oats are hulled to remove the hard outer husk and the groats, as they’re known, are then roasted to give a nice nutty flavour. Next, steaming sparks a natural chemical change in the groats, preventing the fatty acids from turning rancid. This considerably extends shelf life. Finally they’re cut and sometimes also rolled to produce a range of products.

Rolled oats, Scotch oats, steel-cut oats, oatmeal, oat bran – oats come in many different forms, depending on the method of processing. But while other cereals are split into different parts during milling, oats are not. And, as whole grains, they retain all of their nutritional value. Compressing a grain increases the availability of the soluble fibres, so rolled oats cook faster than cut oats. Quick oats, as the name suggests, take the least time to cook, as they are rolled thinner than wholegrain oats. With Scotch oats, the oat grain is cut into two or three pieces and finely rolled. This produces a smooth, creamy porridge that cooks quickly. Steel-cut oats are also cut into pieces but aren’t rolled. They take a little longer to cook so need soaking first. To make oatmeal, the grain is finely ground.

The green grain

New Zealand oats are grown in a very sustainable manner, mainly on mixed farms, where oat cultivation is rotated from field to field every three to four years. The oats are planted in September and no additional irrigation is required. The strong spring nor’westers strengthen their root systems, and in January, when the soil moisture content lowers naturally, the plants begin to set seed. Harvesting takes place in March and April. Farmers then strip-graze the land to prevent the soil from becoming compacted. When stock have eaten the stubble, the field is ploughed and replanted. After a four-year cycle, the field is left fallow and sheep or cattle are grazed on it for another few years to naturally fertilise the soil.

Over the last 25 years, there’s been much more emphasis on soil health in conventional oat growing. Harraways is involved in ongoing research into, and discussion on, local oat varieties, and buys its oats from around 60 growers throughout Southland and Otago. The region’s cool, wet climate, similar to that of Scotland and Scandinavia, is ideal.

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Are oats gluten free?

Not even the experts agree. The definition of a gluten-free product varies from country to country, but the term generally describes foods with what’s considered a harmless level, as opposed to a complete absence, of gluten.

Oats are closely related to wheat, rye and barley, which each contain a slightly different type of gluten protein. Avenin is the essential protein in oats, while the gliadin protein in wheat is what provokes a response in coeliacs and those with wheat sensitivity.

While oats are gliadin-free, small amounts of wild barley, wheat or rye may grow in an oat field, potentially contaminating the crop. New studies suggest that some coeliacs may also be intolerant to avenin, and Coeliac NZ Inc says that approximately 20 percent of those diagnosed with coeliac disease react to pure uncontaminated oats – in other words, to oat avenin. The organisation advises avoiding oats if you have severe gluten intolerance. But for those looking to simply reduce their gluten consumption, oats are the perfect breakfast.

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