Cholesterol : Return to Oats

Mary Jean Porter

The English were wrong. They didn't realize that the oats eaten by Scotsmen were excellent food rather than proof of their primitive nature.

"There are these great quotes about this being what makes the Scots so uncivilized -- the fact they eat oats," says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Bostonbased Whole Grains Council. "I think they (the English) were missing a bet."

Beyond tasting good, oats are higher in protein and higher in healthy unsaturated fats than most grains and are lower in carbohydrates. And the carbs they do contain are good. The fiber in oats includes beta-glucans that can lower cholesterol, and oats contain antioxidants that can reduce the damage caused by LDL or "bad" cholesterol, especially when paired with a source of vitamin C. "Eating a bowl of oatmeal a day can decrease total cholesterol by 8 to 23 percent," Harriman says.

What better time to eat oatmeal than a cold January morning? But oats are good at other times of the day, too. Most granola bars are oat-based and can be eaten at any time, and oatmeal cookies make a sweet afternoon or evening snack. Quaker has developed recipes ranging from oat pilaf with peppers, to oat-crusted chicken with salsa that's healthier than fried chicken, to mozzarella-stuffed turkey burgers that stay moist and juicy thanks to oats.

Despite their many good qualities, oats rank a distant fourth behind wheat in the grains eaten by people in the U.S. Wheat accounts for 69 percent of those grains, corn for 17 percent, rice 11 percent, oats 2.4 percent and barley 0.4 percent. Only 5 percent of the oats grown worldwide are consumed by humans.

The bran and the germ in oats seldom are removed in processing, so a product listing oats or oat flour on the label almost always contains the whole grain.

"We refine grains mostly in the flour form, in order to achieve better shelf life (by removing healthy oils) and better baking capabilities," Harriman says. But the rolling/steaming process most oats undergo stabilizes their oils, and oats aren't used that often in baking bread.

Unlike wheat, rye and barley, oats naturally don't contain the gluten proteins that bother some people, though they may be contaminated by growing near these grains or by being transported or processed where wheat is present. People who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should shop for oats that are certified as gluten-free, Harriman says.

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