Oats are among the oldest crops known to human civilization and currently their production ranks sixth in the worldwide production statistics and fourth in the European ones. Nowadays, the primary markets of oats are North America and Europe. Traditionally used for animal feed in many countries, oats gained popularity in the last decades as food ingredients due to their versatility in several applications and their unique nutritional properties. Indeed, these cereals are a good source of protein, minerals and soluble fibers. An important fiber present in oats is β-glucan, which is recognized by EFSA for its beneficial effects on health. Moreover, the absence of gluten proteins allows celiac patients to tolerate oats very well. The best growth performances of common oat are reached in acid soil and cool and moist climates, while it is sensitive to hot and dry weather. For all these reasons, the oats production is concentrated between latitude 35 and 65°N (including Finland and Sweden) and between 20 and 46°S (including Argentina and Brazil). After the harvest, oats are typically dehulled and kilned into oat groats, which can be cut and converted into flakes or milled into wholemeal or flour.
Key facts about the crop
The oat domestication started around 3,000 years ago in Central Europe, later than other cereals. The introduction of oats to Europe may have been as contaminant in wheat and barley. Later, oats adapted to the temperate climates, cold and moist soils. Around the seventeenth century, oats were brought to the American continent by European settlers. The production of oats is currently concentrated in temperate climate areas. Oats have been produced for both animal and human nutrition. The health and physiological beneficial effects on humans and its valuable nutritional profile recently generated a sharp increase of the interest in the use of oats as food ingredients. Nowadays, oats are consumed as porridge, snacks, breakfast cereals and flakes, bakery products, baby foods, gluten-free foods, meat and dairy analogues. The characteristics of oats have made it possible in recent years to use these cereals more and more in the fermentation processes for novel food products, like functional beverages and plant-based yogurt.
Why we are working on this crop in HealthFerm
Human diet is currently based on cereal consumption as major source of carbohydrates, fibers and plant protein. Due to their high-quality protein and dietary fibre and its suitability for coeliacs oats are unique among cereals. Nowadays oats are used as raw materials for several applications, especially for the development of plant-based alternatives. In addition, in the last 30 years, the rise of functional food market induced higher interest in oat fermentation and the consequent development of several oat-based fermented beverages. As well as beverages, the use of oats has increased a lot in plant-based yogurts in the last years, however current oat-based yogurts have very low amount of protein and fibers and need to be improved in taste and texture. For the above reasons, oats have a great potential as study object for the HealthFerm project, which will investigate the molecular changes caused by designed fermentation processes to different oat-based food models and their effects on in vitro and in vivo responses.
Curiosity about the crop
- Oats are an ideal low-impact crop, with reduced soil erosion, control of plant diseases, insects and weeds.
- Oats need less water than other crops.
- First traces of oat grains were found on a stone pestle in a southern-Italy cave of an Upper Palaeolithic hunter, and they have been dated back 34,000 years.
- More than 120,000 wild oat seeds were found in an ancient Neolithic village in the Jordan Valley dated 10,500 BP (before the domestication era).
- The first ready-to-eat breakfast cereal based on corn, wheat and oats, was developed in the late 1880s by John H. Kellogg, together with his brother Will K. Kellogg.