SAMUEL Johnson described oats as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses but in Scotland supports the people”.
Now Scottish food scientists are embarking on a five-year quest to develop new varieties of “uber-oats” with boosted nutritional and health-giving properties, which could turn the humble crop into the next superfood.
Dundee-based crop specialist Dr Derek Stewart and his research team at the James Hutton Institute have just completed a study of the cereal, which is already known for its benefits to human health, and will use their knowledge to create super oats.
Describing the grain as the “Cinderella crop” because it is “often looked down on but always delivers”, Stewart said: “It’s a bit of a wonder food because it has multiple health benefits and contains no gluten, so in many cases wholegrain oats can replace wheat for those with an intolerance.”
Although he admits he is no chef, Stewart also claims that oats, with onion, could be the perfect stuffing for your Christmas turkey.
“Oats make an ideal stuffing for your Christmas bird because of their great ability to hold water – this will keep the meat fairly moist as the water will not evaporate. Unlike a dry stuffing, oats will maintain a steady temperature and help cook the bird from the inside.
“The oats will also soak up some of the juices that come off during cooking, and this should result in a stuffing to die for.”
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Oats have a long culinary history north of the Border since they are better suited than wheat to the short, wet growing season.
The grain is a traditional staple of the Scots diet, the basis of porridge, brose, skirlie and oatcakes and a key to haggis, black and white pudding, bannocks and cranachan.
Ancient Scottish universities even had a holiday called Meal Monday, which allowed students to return to their farms and replenish their supplies of oats for term-time sustenance.
Oats are high in beta-glucans, which help cut cholesterol and boost the immune system. They also contain more than 20 unique polyphenols – known as avenanthramides – which have shown strong antioxidant activity that may help prevent cancer, heart disease and strokes.
These polyphenols also possess anti-inflammatory, anti-proliferative and anti-itching properties, which could protect against coronary illnesses, cancers and skin conditions such as eczema.
Scottish cookery writer and 1991 Masterchef winner Sue Lawrence shares Stewart’s passion for the grain. “Not only are they traditional, oats are also healthy and delicious,” she said. “I absolutely adore oatmeal in all manner of dishes, from my everyday porridge to oatcakes and flapjacks.
“In a stuffing, it both adds a crunchy texture and absorbs the flavour of the bird. I far prefer it with roast game birds to the more usual fried breadcrumbs – but that is perhaps purely national prejudice.”
The majority of oats grown in Scotland are used for milling and further processing for breakfast cereals, oatcakes, porridge oats and oatmeal for secondary processing outside Scotland. Most of the rest become specialist feed for horses.
Official forecasts predict the next harvest will be Scotland’s largest in 20 years. Oats were the only major cereal crop to see a recent considerable drop in production – down 18 per cent from 190,000 tonnes last year to 150,000 tonnes in 2014.
The Scottish food scientists’ five-year study is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the British Oat and Barley Millers Association, and crop development company Senove.
To Johnson’s quip about oats being for horses in England and people in Scotland, Lord Elibank is reputed to have retorted: “Very true, and where will you find such men and such horses?”
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