Great British Harvest: oats

September 25, 2018 6:28 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Oats (avena sativa) are a kind of cereal grain. The bit we eat, and generally know as ‘oats’, is the seed of the grain. Oats are the third-largest cereal crop grown in the UK, behind wheat and barley, with as much as 177,000 hectares under cultivation at any one time. We’re slightly unusual among Western countries in taking so much of the crop we grow for human consumption, rather than using it mainly for animal feed. But that’s because here in the UK, we recognise the real benefits of this wonderful crop!

Spot your oats

We’ve probably all had the experience of walking in fields and trying to sound knowledgeable about the crops we can see: ‘Definitely oats. Or maybe barley. Or could it be corn? Is that the same as wheat?’ To save future embarrassment (!), here’s a quick guide to spotting oats out there on the ground.

They look like this:

In a mass, they’re brownish at harvest-time, although individual plants may be slightly green or gold. The seed-heads hang off thin stems, which bend under their weight.

Where do oats grow?

Oats are best grown in temperate regions – they distinctly prefer it cool and slightly wet. Their requirement for summer heat is lower than that of other cereals and they tolerate rain, frost and snow well. They’re therefore an ideal crop for growing across the UK, and fare particularly well in Scotland. They can be sown in springtime or early summer, simply becoming dormant if the temperature rises too high.

How are oats harvested?

Often, oats are harvested when completely ripe, using a combine-harvester. Some farmers, however, use a more traditional swathing technique, which produces a higher yield. In swathing, the crop is harvested when the greenest kernels are beginning to turn cream in colour. The plants are cut about 10cm above the ground, then put into windrows to dry in the sun. They’re then processed in the combine.

Rocks, chaff, other plants and foreign matter are removed from the oats at a milling plant. The outer hulls are then separated from the inner oat groat by a process of centrifugal acceleration. The groats are ‘stabilised’: passed through a heat and moisture treatment, to prevent rancidity.

Some groats are sold just as they are. Others are ‘sized’ (cut), using steel blades, or flattened to obtain pure oat bran. If whole or cut, the groats may be ‘rolled’ (flaked) and then toasted, to produce the oats we’re all familiar with in porridge.

(Interestingly, the ‘instant’ porridge oats you find in convenience sachets are generally made from the steel-cut groats. The regular, thicker porridge (and jumbo) oats are made from rolled whole groats. This is considered by some people to account for the nutritional differences between the two types of porridge.)

What do we do with our oats?

In this country, we eat them – lots of them! We make porridge and muesli from rolled oats, as well as groats and oatmeal, and use them all in baking too. Flapjacks – that wonderful traditional British sweet treat – have oats as their main ingredient (see the NGF famous Perfect Chewy Flapjack recipe here).

Image: sk8geek

Recently, oat milk (in which oats are steeped in water to release creaminess) has begun to rival soya milk as a popular non-dairy milk. We sell oat milk of various kinds from Oatly and Rude Health at Naturally Good Food.

What’s so great about oats?

Oats are rich in protein and fibre and contain a wealth of B vitamins. They’re two-thirds carbohydrate, providing long-lasting energy, and have beneficial cholesterol-lowering effects, thanks to their soluble fibre (in the form of beta-glucans).

What kind of oats do we sell at NGF?

At Naturally Good Food we’ve got the most wonderful creamy organic porridge and jumbo oats, from Scotland. They’re nothing like the sad little sachets of ‘instant’ dust you’ll find in supermarkets – instead, they’re thick and bursting with stored-up energy.

We also sell oatmeal in various forms and oat groats (the latter take significantly longer to cook, but have a hardcore wholefood following).

We’ve got Rude Health and Oatly oat milk products, including Oatly’s latest Barista-style oat milk, which foams up in hot drinks.

We also sell gluten-free oats. The question of gluten and oats is a little vexed. Oats are naturally free from gluten, but are often contaminated with it during growing, harvesting and transportation, when they come into contact with soil and machinery used for wheat and barley. Gluten-free oats, on the other hand, are grown in ‘gluten-free’ fields and harvested, transported and processed in facilities in which wheat and barley are never present. We stock gluten-free porridge and jumbo oats in organic and non-organic forms.

It should be noted that proteins called ‘avenins’, which are found in oats, can prompt a similar response to gluten in a small proportion of people. However, most coeliacs find they can tolerate them.

We get our oats every day at Naturally Good Food! Click here to get yours too.

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This post was written by Yzanne

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