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Nutritional value of oats

n any discussion about the nutritional value of oats, one of the first things that inevitably gets mentioned is fiber.

But there is more to the nutritional value of oats than just fiber. I have already witten quite extensively on the benefits of fiber, so let me just quickly summarise and move on:

  1. Fiber comes in two forms and oats contain a high percentage of soluble fiber, more so than any other grain.
  2. Soluble fiber imparts several important health benefits, including protecting against heart disease, cancer and diabetes, as well as controlling weight gain and preventing obesity.
  3. Soluble fiber is NOT superior to insoluble fiber - each has its role in contributing to our health. Therefore, oats are not superior to other grains that contain less soluble fiber.

I don't wish to focus too much on the benefits of fiber in oats not because these benefits are unimportant, but because a lot has already been written on this subject. There are more interesting things to talk about...

Protein in oats

In Part I of this discussion about the benefits and nutritional value of oats, I mentioned that oats are fed to horses and eaten by people like the Scots, who are known to be generallty strong.

One reason could be the high protein content of oats and the quality of that protein. Among whole grains, oats have the highest protein content, ranging from 12 to 24 percent.

The quality of oat protein is also unique. Oat protein is similar to the protein of soy beans, which is recognised as being almost equal in quality to the protein in meat, milk and eggs.

The main protein in oats, which makes up about 80 percent of the total protein, is categorised as a globulin protein, called avenalin. This protein is found only in oats and not in other grains, which contain proteins categorised as prolamines, such as gluten (wheat protein) and zein (maize protein). The remaining 20 percent of oat protein is a prolamine, called avenin.

People with Celiac disease may experience adverse reactions when they eat foods containinng prolamine proteins, especially gluten. Even though the minor protein in oats is a prolamine protein, however, a number of scientific studies found that people with Celiac Disease can tolerate most varieties of oats.

A problem, however, is that oats is often processed in factories that also process wheat, barley and other grains and cross-contamination often occurs. Because of this, oats may contain enough gluten to trigger sensitivity reactions. But in countries like Finland and Sweden, there are "pure oat" products that are gluten free and generally safe for people with Celiac Disease., is often associated with the ingestion of wheat, or more specifically, a group of proteins labelled prolamines, or more commonly, gluten. Oats lack many of the prolamines found in wheat; however, oats do contain avenin.[10] Avenin is a prolamine that is toxic to the intestinal mucosa of avenin-sensitive individuals, and can trigger a reaction in these coeliacs.[11]
Further information: Avenin-sensitive enteropathy
The most recent research indicates that some cultivars of oat can be a safe part of a gluten-free diet, because different varieties of oat have different levels of toxicity.[12] Although oats do contain avenin, there are several studies suggesting that this may not be problematic for all celiacs. The first such study was published in 1995.[13] A follow-up study indicated it is safe to use oats even in a longer period.[14]

Antioxidants in oats

Antioxidants may also contribute significantly to the nutritional value of oats.

Most of the discussion about antioxidants focuses on fruits and vegetables but there is growing recognition that antioxidants in whole grains like oats are just as valuable, or even more so, in protecting against cancer and other degenerative diseases.

The difference is this - antioxidants in fruits and vegetables occur mainly in "free" form that dissolve in water and are easily absorbed into the bloodstream. In whole grains such as oats, as much as 99 percent of antioxidants occur in "bound" form. These are attached to plant cells and must be digested - and "released" by bacteria - before they can be absorbed.

Researchers who study this antioxidant activity of oats and other whole grains believe it explains why people who regularly eat whole grains have lower rates of cancer, whereas scientific studies on the role of fiber in protecting against cancer have yielded inconsistent results.

In other words, the nutritional value of oats arise from it being a whole grain, rather than just from the fiber or any other component.

Manganese in oats

Another important antioxidant that contributes to the nutritional value of oats is the trace element, manganese. Normally, I avoid highlighting individual nutrients because I find it rather meaningless. One food contains more of certain nutrients while another food contains more of others and it is not easy or possible to conclude which food is better.

But I thought I'd mention manganese here because oats is particularly rich in this trace element, with a one cup serving of oats providing close to 400 percent (383 percent according to one chart) of the daily value for this nutrient.

Apart from having antioxidant effects, manganese also helps:

Oat as a whole grain

Rather than focus on the many different nutrients in oats, I feel it is more meaningful to think about the nutritional value of oats as coming from the entire whole grain.

Like most whole grains, the bulk of the nutritional value of oats lies in the skin or bran, the part that is "polished" away when grains like wheat and rice are refined, leaving behind little else besides carbohydrates. (One exception is barley, which has good amounts of fiber throughout the grain and not just in the bran, although most nutrients remain in the bran.)

Unlike other common grains like wheat and rice, however, oats are commonly eaten whole and complete, with all (or most of) the fiber and nutrients intact. This is so even with mass-market products like Quaker Oats, including quick-cooking "instant oats. They are mostly whole grain products.

The nutritional value of oats, therefore, arises mainly from the fact that it is eaten as a whole grain by "ordinary" people, and not just by those who specially seek out whole grain foods because they are health conscious.

This makes oats the "healthy grain" for ordinary, common people. One does not have to be a "health nut" to benefit from the nutritional value of oats.

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