Oats' connection to gluten-free diets have made the grain more in demand than ever. The gluten-sensitive inflammatory condition of celiac disease affects only a small percentage of the population (estimates are from 1 to 4 percent). The only known treatment is lifelong avoidance of wheat and its relatives, barley, rye and spelt.
It was once believed oats are equal offenders, however, this is not the case. In fact, recent studies show oats do not stimulate the typical markers of inflammation characteristic of celiac disease.
A year-long study, published last year in Clinical and Experimental Immunology, of 46 patients with celiac disease who consumed oats on a regular basis revealed that none of the subjects who adhered to the gluten-free protocol showed either a change or improvement in the immunological marker of the disease.
Another study, published one month ago in the journal Nutrients, followed 106 Finnish celiac patients for eight years. Two-thirds of the subjects ate oats on a regular basis. The oat consumers suffered no damage to small-bowel villi, inflammation or gastrointestinal symptoms.
In fact, most studies show no adverse effects from eating oats for the vast majority of subjects diagnosed with celiac disease. In subjects where oats appeared to cause a problem, contamination with known gluten-containing grains could not be ruled out. There is also the potential that different strains of oats may have different effects on digestion in some individuals.
"Oats have been shown to not simulate the typical markers of inflammation noticed in individuals with celiac disease," says Rajen Mehta, senior director for specialty ingredients at Grain Millers Inc., Eugene, Ore. "This allows celiac patients to eat oat-containing foods and thereby take advantage of their nutritious characteristics.
"Oats are one of only thee grains that, when added to foods, are allowed a heart-health claim by the FDA. This is due to the high beta-glucan level in oats," he says. The addition of 0.75g of this soluble fiber per serving, or 3g/day, allows the claim that it "reduces risk of coronary heart disease."
Now that the awareness of cross-contamination is in the limelight, companies such as Grain Millers are taking extra care to provide certified gluten-free oats. For example, Grain Millers works directly with farmers to ensure no cross-contamination occurs and further ensures that plant processing and shipping to food manufacturers further maintains the gluten-free nature of the product across the supply chain. Dedicated suppliers are already positioned to meet the more stringent demands on products to achieve the global gluten-free standard of fewer than 5 ppm gluten.
Other health benefits have focused attention on oats. Oatmeal ranks very high on the satiety index, a measure that gauges the return of hunger following a meal. Recent studies sponsored by Quaker Oats' parent company PepsiCo demonstrated that oatmeal is more satisfying than ready-to-eat cereals containing oats.
The preparation of ready-to-eat cereals lessens their viscosity. "Some researchers have established a relationship between the viscosity level of the oat beta-glucan and satiety level," says Mehta. "But the level of soluble fiber per serving is a key, as it relates to satiety and overeating. Insoluble fibers in general have also been related to satiation levels."
Oats also contain resistant starch, known to help balance blood sugar and increase satiety through chemical reaction in the large intestine.
Recent popular attention to low-carb and "paleo" diets has resulted in confusion among some consumers regarding the value of whole grains such as oats in the modern diet. The implication is that grains, along with starches in general, are "unnatural," and that humans have not adapted to starches. It takes little analysis to see that such a grossly unscientific position distorts both human metabolics and evolution. From many perspectives, oats have proven to be a healthy addition to almost any diet.
The consumption of oats over the past 40 years has remained remarkably constant, even though overall daily kcals have increased by about 500 in that time. In view of the resultant obesity epidemic and oats’ ability to help, "feeling your oats" is one of the more positive moves consumers can make.