What are oats?

Oats are the grains of the cereal Avena sativa. They were the most widely grown crop in the UK up until the Second World War. Although their popularity has waned over the last few generations, some of the best oats are still grown in this country. Once harvested, they are used as a foodstuff, for skin products and livestock feed.

When used as a foodstuff, oats are milled, steamed, heated and cooled in a kiln to bring out the flavour. They are then rolled, cut or ground to produce flakes, oatmeal or flour.

You’ll get whole grain goodness whatever form you eat oats in. This is because all that’s removed before processing is the outer inedible hull, preserving all the valuable nutrients inside.

So, what are the different types?

Pinhead or steel cut oats are whole oats that have been cut into two or three pieces by steel cutters to produce a rough, coarse oatmeal. Pinhead oats are used for making oatcakes and porridge using the traditional method. They are sometimes called Irish or Scottish oats.

Jumbo rolled oaks or flakes are whole oats that have been softened with steam and flattened between rollers to produce flakes. Jumbo rolled oats are used in muesli or to make a thick porridge.

Rolled oats are pinhead oats that have been softened with steam and rolled into flakes. They are smaller and cook quicker, making smoother porridge. They are commonly used in biscuits, oatcakes, cereal bars or flapjacks.

Oatmeal is made using grooved rollers to break the oats down into different grades of oatmeal, from coarse oatmeal to medium or fine oatmeal. Oatmeal is used in biscuits, oatcakes, scones and crumble toppings.

Oat flour is made by grinding and sieving them down to a coarse, medium or fine consistency. It is finer than oatmeal and is used in bread and cakes.

Health benefits

Oats have a well-balanced nutritional composition. They are good sources of carbohydrate and fibre and have higher levels of protein and fat than other cereals, also being good sources of many minerals and vitamins, especially the B vitamins, which are essential for keeping the eyes, skin, blood and nervous system healthy.

In all form, they contain antioxidants including avenanthramides and ferulic acid, and beneficial plant compounds called polyphenols. Avenanthramides help reduce blood pressure by increasing the production of nitric oxide, which helps dilate blood vessels, therefore, increasing the flow of blood. Avenanthramides also have anti-inflammatory and anti-itching properties.

Oats are one of the best sources of the soluble fibre beta-glucan which partially dissolves in water in the gut to form a gel that helps reduce blood cholesterol levels, helps reduce blood sugar levels, increases the feeling of fullness and promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut.

Although naturally gluten-free, they may be contaminated during harvesting, processing or storage of cereals that do contain gluten. If you suffer from coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity, always check the label and only buy products which are certified gluten-free.


Oats are a versatile super food. As well as being used in the traditional breakfast porridge, they are also a common cooking ingredient in dishes such as haggis, sausages, flapjacks, cookies and biscuits. Look out for them in cakes and crumbles too, or use as a coating for fish, poultry or in dumplings.

Energy ball recipes including oats: