Confused about all of the kinds of oats you see on the store shelf? You're not alone. My own confusion motivated me to do some research and share what I learned in this post. I'll explain oat types, nutrition, uses, and recipes. Everything is summarized in a printable table for you, too.
PROCESSED isn't always a dirty word. In fact, a degree of processing can be beneficial, particularly with oats. We wouldn't be able to eat oats at all without the inedible hull removed. Oats are dried to extend their shelf life and make them available to us year round. Some are steamed and rolled to reduce the time required to cook them, and that means busy people can include these healthy grains in their regular diet. I'll explain how each of the oat varieties is processed and which are best.
Here's my OAT COMPARISON CHART that concisely summarizes some of the information explained in the post below. You may want to print it and keep it with your cookbooks for handy reference.
Continue reading for more detailed information about the different kinds of oats, important nutritional guidelines, and heart-healthy oat recipes.
- Groats are the whole oat kernel with the inedible hull removed.
- With a nuttier flavor and chewier texture, they are good for hot breakfast cereal, pilafs, and stuffing. (These are my personal favorite for making hot breakfast oatmeal.)
- They have the longest cooking time (approx. 1 hour stove top), making them less popular than other oats. That makes them a good choice for overnight slow cooking. I'll be sharing my easy Overnight Slow Cooker Groats recipe in an upcoming post.
- 1/4 c. dry: 130 calories, 3g fat, 31g carbs, 5g fiber, 8g protein; Weight Watchers PointsPlus: 4
- Not as widely available as other oats. Find them at Whole Foods (bulk bins) and health food stores. I buy my favorite organic oat groats in packs of 4 on Amazon.
- Steel Cut Oats are also known as Irish Oats. They are groats cut into a few pieces using sharp metal blades.
- They have a nutty flavor more similar to groats than rolled oats.
- They cook faster than groats, approx. 20 min. on the stove top, because the pieces are smaller and better able to absorb the liquid. Also suitable for slow cookers.
- 1/4 c. dry: 170 calories, 3g fat, 29g carbs, 5g fiber, 7g protein; Weight Watchers PointsPlus: 4
- Their popularity has been on the rise in recent years and they are increasingly more widely available in grocery stores. I buy my favorite organic steel cut oats in affordable 4 packs on Amazon.
- Scottish Oats are stone ground into a coarse meal of irregularly broken bits, a method that originated in Scotland centuries ago.
- These have a creamier texture than steel cut oats.
- Cook them 10 min. on the stove top, or 3-5 min. in the microwave.
- 1/4 cup dry: 140 calories, 2.5g fat, 23g carbs, 4g fiber, 6g protein; Weight Watchers PointsPlus: 3
- Not as widely available as steel cut and rolled oats. Find organic Scottish oats at Whole Foods and on Amazon.
- Old Fashioned Rolled Oats are made by steaming oat groats so they're softened and then rolling them into flakes. This process stabilizes their healthy oils and extends their shelf life without significantly effecting their health benefits. In fact, their nutritional profile and glycemic index is virtually identical to steel cut oats, helping to stabilize blood sugars while keeping you feeling full longer than many grains.
- The steaming when they're processed partially cooks the oats and reduces the cooking time in your kitchen. Also, flattened oats have a greater surface area, helping them cook faster. Old fashioned oats' cooking time is similar to Scottish oats. These cook in 10 min on the stove top, or 3-5 min. in the microwave. They also can be used in baked goods like cookies and muffins.
- 1/2 cup dry: 190 calories, 3.5g fat, 32g carbs, 5g fiber, 1g sugars, 7g protein; Weight Watchers PointsPlus: 5
- Widely available in grocery stores. I buy my favorite organic old fashioned rolled oats in 4 packs on Amazon.
- Quick oats go through the same process of steaming and rolling as the old fashioned oats, only more of it; so they are partially cooked. They're rolled thinner than old fashioned oats. The extra rolling results in a creamier and less chewy texture--some people prefer that, other's don't.
- These are digested more quickly, so they don't keep you feeling full as long, and aren't quite as good at stabilizing blood sugars as old fashioned and steel cut oats.
- These cook in under 5 minutes on the stove top and in 2-3 minutes in the microwave. They also can be prepared by just adding boiling water, stirring, and letting them stand for a few minutes to thicken, making them almost as convenient as instant oats. Quick oats may also be used in baked goods like cookies and muffins.
- 1/2 cup dry: 180 calories, 3g fat, 29g carbs, 5g fiber, 1g sugars, 7g protein; Weight Watchers PointsPlus: 4
- Widely available in grocery stores. Organic quick oats are harder to find; I've found them on Amazon.
- Instant oats look and taste very similar to quick oats, except that they are steamed longer (so they're pre-cooked), rolled even thinner, and dehydrated. When purchased plain & unsweetened, their health benefits are similar to quick oats. However, they are commonly sold in packets loaded with unhealthy amounts of sweeteners, salt and artificial mystery ingredients. The relative creaminess of instant oats is a result of their extra processing.
- Because instant oats are pre-cooked, all you need to do is rehydrate them. Add boiling water, stir, and they're ready to eat. That makes these a good choice for camping, hotel, workplace, and on-the-go breakfasts. They're not as good for you as steel-cut and old fashioned oats, but they're still considered a healthy choice and certainly far better than most packaged cereals.
- 1/3 cup dry, plain: 120 calories, 2g fat, 21g carbs, 3g fiber, 1g sugars, 5g protein; Weight Watchers PointsPlus: 3
- Stay away from the pre-made sugary packets of instant oats and make your own. They're easy to make, taste great, and are so much better for you. Check out my recipes for making 12 different flavors: Healthy Instant Oatmeal Packets
- Plain instant oats aren't as easy to find as the flavored packets. Look for them at Whole Foods. I don't use these for home cooking, but they're handy for camping, hotel, and workplace breakfasts. I order my favorite plain instant oats on Amazon.
- Oat Bran is the outer layer of the oat groat that is ground into a coarse meal that is high in soluble fiber. In fact, the bran has almost all of the fiber in an oat kernel. It's technically not a whole grain since it is ground from only the bran layer, however it has the health benefits of a whole grain.
- When cooked, oat bran makes a creamy hot cereal. Or, it can be added to other cereals, baked goods, smoothies, or yogurt to add soluble fiber.
- For hot cereal, cook for 2 minutes on the stove top or 3 minutes the microwave.
- 1/3 cup dry, 150 calories, 2g fat, 27g carbs, 7g fiber, 7g protein; Weight Watchers PointsPlus: 4
- Available in many grocery stores and health food stores. I've found the best price for organic oat bran in 4 packs on Amazon.
- Oat flour is simply whole oats that are ground into a fine powder.
- It can be used in baking, for thickening soups and stews, and for breading on meats.
- 1/3 cup, 160 calories, 3g fat, 26g carbs, 4g fiber, 7g protein; Weight Watchers PointsPlus: 4
- You can purchase oat flour or make your own by whirling rolled oats in a blender or food processor.
- Available in some grocery stores, Whole Foods, and in economical 4 packs on Amazon.
Nutrition of WHOLE vs. CUT vs. ROLLED vs. GROUND.
When you compare the nutritional data I included under each type of oat described above, you'll see only negligible differences. All of these are considered 100% whole grain (with the exception of oat bran). The nutritional profile of the different oats is essentially the same whether they are left whole, cut, rolled, or ground. That is contrary to what many people think. I have to admit that I was misinformed about this for a long time. But, it makes sense, right? They're all made out of the whole oat groats, so the whole grain and all of it's nutrients end up in your bowl of oatmeal regardless the size of the pieces. Old fashioned oats are steamed before they're rolled, but the steaming doesn't compromise their nutrition in measurable ways.
I like the way Coach Levi explains it: "...rolled oats and steel cut oats are the same food, just cut differently. Saying they’re vastly different in nutritional value is like saying a sandwich cut straight down the middle is healthier than a sandwich sliced diagonally into triangles!"
What's the difference then? The difference in oats is primarily a matter of texture and cooking time. So, it boils down to (no pun intended) convenience and your personal preference--there's a range of chewy to creamy options.
What are the health benefits of eating oats?
- Oats are rich in fiber, manganese, the B vitamins thiamin and riboflavin, vitamin E, iron, and protein.
- Oats are believed to help lower blood cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some cancers.
- Oats have the highest proportion of soluble fiber of any grain.
- The fiber in oats can help improve bowel health.
- Oats can aid in weight loss by keeping you feeling full for longer periods of time.
- The Mayo Clinic rates oats and oat bran as the #1 foods for reducing bad cholesterol and protecting your heart.
What about the glycemic index (GI)?
First a little background. The glycemic index measures the speed at which a food is digested and converted into blood sugar. Low GI foods are believed to be digested more slowly, keeping you feeling full longer, and help to stabilize blood sugars.
The glycemic index is only part of the health profile of food, because it doesn't identify the nutrients found in food. For example, potato chips have a lower GI than a plain baked potato; most nutritionists would agree that a baked potato is a healthier choice. So, the glycemic index of food is important (particularly for diabetics), but it is only one factor in evaluating the overall health impact of food. Here's the scoop about the glycemic index of oats:
While there is a difference in the GI of steel cut and rolled oats, it is a negligible difference. They both have a low GI and are considered a healthy choice.
Quick and instant oats both have a higher GI, so they may not keep you feeling full as long as groats, steel-cut and old fashioned oats. If you stay away from the pre-packaged sweetened & flavored varieties, plain instant oats are still considered low-glycemic carbs. (source)
To lower the GI of instant oatmeal, you can add some protein like milk or nuts. The nuts are also a healthy fat and good for lowering cholesterol. A half scoop of protein powder can be added for a nutrition boost, too. (source)
Are oats gluten free? Yes....and no.
Oats themselves are gluten free. The problem is that they can get contaminated with gluten if they are processed with equipment that is also used for processing grains with gluten (like wheat). Also, oats can become contaminated if they are grown in fields next to wheat. So, if you eat a gluten free diet, the best bet is to purchase oats that are specifically labeled "gluten free". Bob's Red Mill has a complete line of gluten free oats that are available in some grocery stores and on Amazon.
Here are my sources.
Truth is, I have ZERO nutritional or medical training and make no claims of being an expert. I've been confused myself about sorting out the differences in oat types; so, I did a lot of reading and research and assembled information for this post from multiple sources. If you'd like to go straight to those sources, here are the main ones I referenced: Whole Grains Council, Bob's Red Mill, The World's Healthiest Foods, Mayo Clinic, CNN Nutritionist, Tastespotting, Nutrition Diva, Coach Levi, Livestrong, Self, Johns Hopkins. Anyone with diabetes or dietary concerns should consult a doctor.
Bottom line: EAT MORE OATS!
It's recommended that you eat oats 3 to 5 times a week. Be cautious about foods with OATS in their name. Read the ingredient labels on product packaging to make sure they actually have enough oats to make a difference. Look for whole oats, oatmeal, or oat bran as the first ingredient. Better yet, make your own oat recipes from scratch. That way you can control the ingredients and know exactly what's going into your body.
Here are a few of my favorite recipes that include a healthy dose of oats. My slow-cooker oatmeal, refrigerator oatmeal, and oatmeal smoothie recipes happen to be among the most popular ever on The Yummy Life.
Slow-cooker oatmeal recipes:
Make ahead, no-cook refrigerator oatmeal recipes:
- Original 6 flavors (Mango Almond, Blueberry Maple, Apple Cinnamon, Banana Cocoa, Raspberry Vanilla, Banana Peanut Butter)
- 8 more flavors (Pineapple Coconut, Mandarin Orange, Cherry Garcia, Peach Melba, Pumpkin Pie, Cranberry Pecan, Apricot Ginger, Mocha)
Smoothies & Frozen Treats
DIY Healthy Instant Oatmeal Packets (for on-the-go camping, hotel, and workplace breakfasts)
Recipes for baking with oats:
Tips for baking with oats:
- Old fashioned and quick oats both are recommended for baking when you want the oats to be visible; for example, in oatmeal cookies or streusel crumb toppings. Regular old fashioned oats hold up better and provide more texture than quick oats. Instant oats aren't recommended for baking, because they disintegrate easily when they're mixed in.
- Oat bran can be added to baked goods to increase fiber and nutrition. 1-2 tablespoons can be added to cookies, muffins, and breads without normally needing to adjust the other ingredients.
- Oat flour can be substituted for a portion of gluten flours in baked goods. However, because oat flour doesn't contain gluten it behaves differently than wheat flour; so it isn't suitable as a 100% substitute for wheat flour in most recipes. In cookie, muffin, and quick bread recipes, I have successfully substituted oat flour for up to half of the wheat flour.
Does the brand of oats matter? Perhaps, but I honestly don't know. If I've run out and need some oats in a hurry, I'll buy whatever organic oats I can easily purchase at my local grocery store or Trader Joe's. When I plan ahead, I order Bob's Red Mill organic oats from Amazon. I'm confident in the quality of their whole grain products and am impressed with the company's integrity and reputation. They have a complete line of organic whole grain oats. Using Amazon Prime's 2-day free shipping, it's fast and much cheaper to order oats from Amazon than directly from Bob's Red Mill or at my grocery store. The drawback of Amazon is that most of their oats have to purchased in 4-packs. That's not a problem for me, because I cook with oats regularly. The oats I've ordered from Amazon recently have a 2-year-out expiration date, so I will easily use them up and reorder more before they expire. If you want to purchase them in smaller quantities, check your local grocery store, health food stores, or a Whole Foods.
view Bob's Red Mill Oats on Amazon
Just so you know, I have no affiliation whatsoever with Bob's Red Mill. They have no idea who I am; I just happen to be a fan of their products. I do have an Amazon affiliate account and earn a teensy bit on items purchased via my links.
Here's a peek at what I had for breakfast this morning--a bowl of slow-cooker whole oat groats with a few blueberries on top. Simple, hearty, healthy and satisfying. It's my fave breakfast these days. What kinds of oats do you eat?
Make it a Yummy day!
Here's an infographic (designed by T-Man, techie guy) to easily pin and share on Pinterest: