This surprising and fascinating history of oats is presented below as an interactive timeline. Scroll left and right to explore the history. Click on each history point to expand it. Use the shortcut links below the chart to jump to a century.
There are many uses for oats ranging from simple food to the less well known and surprising chemical and medicinal uses.
Aside from the common use of oats in breakfast cereals such as muesli, granola and Cheerios, oats crop up in a 'gamoat' of other foods. Both oat ice cream and oat milk are available and oat's natural preservative and antioxidant qualities have been put to use in bread, milk, milk powder, butter, ice cream, fish oil, olive oil, bacon, lard, frozen fish and frozen sausage. Oat flour adds a great flavour to bread and can also be used to make a coffee substitute. Oats were once used for making whiskey, the last distillery closing in Ireland in 1975. Some beers, such as oatmeal stout, employ oats in their making. Patents have also been filed for the use of oat lipids (fats) which are potentially excellent emulsifiers for use in bread, margarine and chocolate. Oat gum has also been suggested as an alternative to gelatine as a thickening and stablizing agent in ice cream, sauces and salad dressings.
Over ninety five percent of oats grown are used for livestock purposes such as feed grain, hay or silage. Lucky livestock. Oat straw makes wonderful mulch which horses, sheep and rabbits think makes wonderful food as well as bedding. The oats don't need threshing, just feed them the stalks and all. Whole oats are also excellent poultry food, the oat hulls help to prevent cannabalism. The chickens chose well.
Medicinally oats have been used to prevent heart disease and cancers, to enhance immune response to infection and to stabilize blood sugars. They have also been used to treat rheumatism, chronic neurological pain and atonia (weakness) of the bladder. They have been used to treat insomnia, stress, anxiety, depression and nervous exhaustion. Interestingly, an extract of oats was used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine to cure opium addiction. A case report showed 6 out of 10 opium addicts gave up the drug after a treatment period of 27 to 45 days using a decoction of green oats. Oats have also even been used to treat withdrawal from tobacco. Oat straw in particular is a tonic when taken medicinally. It has been prescribed by herbalists to treat general debility and a wide range of nervous conditions gently raising energy levels while supporting an over-stressed nervous system. Infusions of oat straw have also been used for flu and coughs. These uses may or may not have been sanctioned by relevant government bodies or authorities.
Oats have a soothing effect on skin. A decoction added to a bath helps soothe dry skin or itchiness, including such conditions as eczema, psoriasis measles, chickenpox, pityriasis rosea and sunburn. Oats can also be used as a skin cleanser and are frequently used as an exfolliant to remove the surface layer of dead skin cells. Oats are therefore a common ingredient in many skincare preparations. Oats can be found in bars of soap as well as in creams and gels. Some oat extracts have been found to have a synergistic sun-blocking effect when used in combination with titanium dioxide. Hydrolysed oat protein has been a popular ingredient in shampoos and conditioners, in particular as a replacement for animal-derived proteins, and it has been reported that the proteins condition and coat damaged hair, prevent hair dryness and improve hair texture. Use for oat starches have been proposed, including as a replacement for talcum powder, which has been linked with various adverse health effects. In combination with certain other oat derivatives the starch may be formulated into dusting powders for surgical gloves containing both smoothness and anti-irritant properties.
Oat hulls are a raw material for the making of furfural (from the latin word furfur, meaning bran) and many related compounds (furfuryl alcohol, tetrahydrofurfuryl alcohol, furan, tetrahydrofuran and polytetramethylene etherglycol). Industrial uses of furfural and these compounds includes solvent extraction of crude petroleum, the nylon industry, a solvent for dyes, resins, paints, and varnish, production of elastomers and thermoplastics, manufacture of phenolic resin glues and plywood adhesives, hydrogen peroxide explosives, anti-skid tread composition, as a filter aid in breweries, production of construction board material and production of paper pulp. The starches in oats have also been used in the production of adhesives. Another patented use of oats is an oil spill dispersant which is able to adsorb oil, then emulsify and disperse it efficiently. Oat flour can be converted into starch acetates that are used in the production of biodegradable plastics. Oat proteins can be used as carriers and release agents for agricultural chemical sprays. Oat hulls can also be used as growing substrates for yeast and fungi; the production of chemical indicators of toxicity in polluted water; the production of xylitol (a sugar substitute). Oats may also prove to be a good source of the enyzme lipase, which breaks down fat.
Oats can be found in several forms, each being dependent upon the degree of processing they have been subjected to.
Whole oats have a hard outer hull that must be removed before it’s ready for human consumption. Removing this hard outer hull is not trivial, so if you want whole oats to eat, purchase them already hulled. The oat hulls are a source of the chemical solvent furfural. Hulled oats are known as 'groats'.
Oat groats are the whole oat grain, with only the hard unpalatable outer hull removed, but with the kernel's outer bran layer left in tact. They are long and thin with a smooth shiny surface and look like brown rice. They can be eaten at this stage, but are typically processed into one of the forms below.
Steel-cut oats, also known as pinhead oats and sometimes referred to as coarse or rough oatmeal, are made by passing groats through steel cutters which chop each one into three or four pieces. Since they still contain the whole grain including the oat bran, steel cut oats are very nutritious.
Rolled oats are made by steaming groats and flattening them with a roller. These come in two distinct varieties. The first variety is sometimes referred to as old fashioned, or jumbo. These are made by first steaming the whole groat for a few minutes, thus partially cooking it, then passing it between rollers to flatten it out. The second variety is sometimes referred to as quick-cooking rolled oats. These are made by putting steel-cut oats through the same process.
Instant oats are made in a similar fashion to rolled quick-cooking oats, except they are steamed longer and rolled more thinly. It produces the kind of oats used for making some types of 'instant' porridge. Generally the more you process a food the less nutritious it becomes,instant oats are best avoided if you want to get the full benefit of this grain.
Oats can be ground in to flour which usually comes in three grades - coarse (ie steel-cut oats), medium and fine. Medium oatmeal can be used in cakes and crumble toppings to give a nutty flavour, or added to soups as a thickener/creamer. Fine oatmeal (flour) adds a great flavour to bread and improves its shelf life due to the natural preservatives found in oats. Since oats lack gluten, they're typically mixed with a gluten-containing flour such as wheat flour.
Oats are part of the grasses family, the Gramineae. Varieties of common white oats, Avena sativa, are the most widely grown and are planted in the spring for summer harvesting. In warmer climates where winters are mild, varieties of red oats, Avena byzantina, are sown in the autumn and harvested the following summer. There is also a hull-less (in fact loose hulled) species called Naked Oats, Avena nuda, but this is grown much less commonly. Many varieties of common white and red oats are available, and have names like Clinton, Cherokee, Bonda, Andrew, Clintford, Otee, Noble, Stout, Dal, Orbit, Garland, Astro, Mariner Missouri O-205, Coker, Florida 501, Georgia 7199, Tam O-301 and Pennfield. Their qualities vary, for example Cherokee, Clinton and Bonda varieties are good for milling and produce a high amount of oatmeal per total weight. Some commonly recognized species and subspecies are desribed below.
Common Oat (Tree Oat), Avena sativa
This is the most important of the cultivated oats. In 1955, 146 varieties of common oats were listed, most of which were grown to some degree commercially somewhere in the United States. Many new winter and sprint varieties have been released since then, and many are no longer grown. These different varieties differ in vigor, height, grain shape and grain size.
Red Oat, Avena byzantina
A number of important cultivated of both winter and spring varieties are included in this species. Red oat varieties are the kinds generally grown in the southern half of the United States. Fifty varieties of red oats, many of which are still cultivated, have been identified..
Large Naked Oat (Hull-less Oat), Avena nuda
In this species the kernel is loose within the hull. The origin of this species is thought to have been Central and Eastern Asia. Only a fewl varieties of Avena nuda
Side Oats (Common Side Oats), Avena sativa ssp orientalis
This sub-species is of much less economic importance in the United States than the common oat since varieties of it are generally of the spring type. Eighteen varieties of side oats have been identified, none of which are grown extensively.
Small Naked Oat, Avena nudibrevis
A small type of oat that is not grown commercially in the United States.
Wild Red Oat, Avena steriles
This species is believed to be that from which cultivated red oats developed. Three varieties are recognized. This species has become naturalized in some areas in this country but is not in cultivation.
Desert Oat, Avena wiestii
This species, introduced into this country for study, appears native to the Eastern Mediterranean Area. The species is also not in cultivation.
Slender Oat, Avena barbata
This species has small, weak stems, resulting in a ground-lying growth habit with seeds that fall to the ground at maturity. The species is now widely distributed throughout the world and its origin is believed to be Europe. The species is not grown as a grain crop but has become naturalized widely. In California it is a reseeding range grass.
Sand Oat, Avena strigosa
The species is widely distributed in Europe and bas become naturalized in California. It is not grown as a grain crop.
Abyssinian Oat, Avena abyssinica
This species is similar to the desert oat, Avena wiestii.
This species is grown to some extent in Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia) but not in the United States.
Wild Oat, Avena fatua
This species is now widely distributed throughout temperate regions and is a troublesome weed in Northern States and Canada. The plant resembles the common oat, Avena sativa
, but is more vigorous. This species has some value as hay or pasturage but is not grown for grain.
Aside from a cereal crop, oats can be used as a cover crop, grown as a weed barrier or as a starter crop (natural herbicide), erosion control, groundcover, fertilizer, mulch and biomass.
Oats are well adapted to grow in cooler climates having twenty five or more inches of rain a year.
White oats, Avena sativa
, are planted in spring. Red oats, Avena byzantina
, in the fall. Spring oats should be planted as early as possible. Fall oats should be planted late enough to avoid very hot dry weather. In both cases, temperatures below 10F will cause them to die.
Oats grow best in fertile light-to-medium textured soil with a high nitrogen content. Too much nitrogen will lead to more stalk than grain however. Oats can tolerate a soil pH as low as 4.5.
Unlike corn and millet, oats will germinate in cold ground.
Oats have a greater water requirement than other cereal crops. Some types derived from the Slender Oat, Avena barbata
, are however drought tolerant.
Oats harbor various grain aphids, such as Rhopalosiphum padi
and Sitobion avenae
, which can attract lady beetles. Diseases such as cereal rusts and smuts can cause heavy crop losses, but disease-resistant varieties of oats are being developed and varieties have been changed rapidly in response to development of new strains of pathogens.
Here are some mind bending international eco-facts about oats. Its noteworthy that the top producers don't necessarily have the top yields per hectar.