Whole grains play an important role in our diet. They’re full of nutrients like fiber, B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate), and minerals (iron, magnesium, and selenium). Dietary fiber helps reduce blood cholesterol levels and may lower risk of heart disease. It helps reduce constipation and diverticulosis. Fiber-containing foods such as whole grain oats also help provide a feeling of fullness while containing fewer calories than many other foods, so we can actually eat less but feel even more satisfied than if we had a heavy meal.
Not All Oats Are Created Equal
Some oat-lovers out there probably swear by their favorite oatmeal (and some like to call it porridge)— whether steel cut, rolled, raw or cooked—but very few oat-aficionados actually know where their oats come from, let alone have actually seen one growing in the ground! And, most of us also aren’t clear on what goes into making a high quality oat. Similar to nuts, oats actually contain oil (the good kind, of course!), which makes oats at risk for mold, and they can turn rancid if not harvested and dried correctly, which is especially common with U.S. and Canadian grown oats. Those large-scale agri-farms that look nothing like the pastoral quiet images we associate with our food use a delayed drying processes, which cause the mold, giving oats a darker color and less authentic taste. Marketing efforts by some oat companies have even trained American consumers to associate healthy oats with a darker color, when in fact, the lighter and whiter the color of the oat, the less likely that it has been exposed to a fungus. Scandinavian farmers know this, and they adhere to strict drying methods that ensure oats are properly dried to avoid any introduction of molds or fungus.
“The majority of oats sold in the U.S. would go to feed animals in Scandinavia,” says Helena Lumme, co-founder of Simpli, a company that makes several Finnish oat-based products (we have been guzzling their amazing OatShakes lately!), including an instant oatmeal that is certified gluten free. “Drying oats immediately after harvesting is a crucial part of the process, and large industrial farms cannot guarantee that. Sometimes people who claim they are allergic to oats are actually allergic to the mold in oats,” says Simpli co-founder Mika Manninen.
Simpli has been making products with traditionally grown oats since 1925. They contract generations of family farmers who farm exclusively for Simpli, which allows them to control the quality of their oats from seed to package. Simpli’s founders recommend that we look for oats that are large in size and have a light, creamy color, and a slightly sweet, almost floral aroma. Nordic oats have another advantage: the climate. Scientists discovered that plants growing in the Nordic climate, where summers are short and intense, absorb light and nutrients faster, and in the process the develop a fuller flavor.
What About Instant Oats? How are they Different?
Quick cooking oats are the same as longer cooking oats, but are usually made by steaming them longer and rolling them a bit thinner, so that when boiled water hits them, they cook in a minute (it’s like Twitter for cereal!). However, many companies take a shortcut by chopping the oats into small pieces for instant oatmeal, and the oats lose their delicious, hardy texture, and aromatic flavor. Lumme says that some U.S. oatmeal manufacturers even add artificial coloring to their instant oatmeal, a practice she says “we do not understand,” and that it “basically turns a very healthy meal, unhealthy.”
Simpli fans have called their instant Apricot Oatmeal “gourmet.” Unlike other instant oatmeal products on the market, Simpli’s oats are a higher quality product that maintains the oat’s natural texture and flavor without any added artificial ingredients. They also add another fiber-rich food to their instant oatmeal: Spanish apricots. But these are not sugary, fruit-like bits. These are real, delicately dried apricots bursting with a tangy sweetness that tastes so good alongside the aromatic gluten-free, GMO-free, Scandinavian oats.
Look out for “Gluten-Free Washing”
Just as with green-washing, consumers have to be aware of the unregulated industry practice of gluten-free washing,” says Lumme. “The gluten-free trend has created a whole industry making money by coming up with various Gluten Free certificates, each creating their own standard.“
For people with gluten or wheat sensitivity, getting those nutrient rich whole grains into their diet may be difficult. While oats are inherently gluten-free, they are often exposed to wheat or other gluten grains, through shared silos or crops planted in close proximity, which can introduce gluten into the crop, making them unfit for consumption for sufferers of celiac disease. For the gluten sensitive individual, there are certainly other options besides oats. But many of those grains are exotic and expensive. The two most common gluten free grains, rice and corn, are low in nutritional value so people on a gluten free diet may be low in nutrients. And in the U.S., there’s an especially high risk of rice and corn being contaminated with genetically modified seeds, too, as nearly 80 percent of all processed and packaged non-organic foods in our supermarkets now contain GMO ingredients.
Both the FDA and EU recommend gluten-free standard of 20 ppm. To be safe, most companies that sell gluten free products usually stay under 10ppm, yet some promote levels as low as 7 ppm, which can create more confusion for consumers. “The difference is so minimal that your body is not able to tell the difference,” says Lumme, “but all the different ratings can confuse and mislead customers seeking truly gluten-free products.”
Know Your Oats
When it comes to oats, Scandinavian farmers have been growing them the old fashioned way for centuries. They know the benefit of small-scale farming, proper drying methods and why it’s important to avoid cross contamination with gluten containing grains and genetically modified seeds (GMO-farming is illegal in Finland.)
Simpli’s oatmeal starts with Finland’s all natural, sustainably farmed GMO-free oat seeds. This means the actual farms are certified to be gluten free. They inspect the seedlings twice during the growing season to prevent contamination by other grains. When the mature oats are finally sustainably harvested, dried, stored, transported, cleaned and shelled, they are thinly rolled in carefully cleaned and inspected facilities, insuring that they are free of exposure to other grains.
Simpli oatmeal is vegan, too. In fact, just growing the oats uses considerably fewer resources than needed to raise a breakfasdt meal of eggs and sausage. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of oats uses 13 gallons of water compared to the same amount of meat, which would use more than 4,000 gallons! Simpli’s family farmers follow traditional Scandinavian growing procedures—including cultivation and crop rotation to keep weeds at bay; using natural predators, like ladybugs (aw!), to fight pests. And it’s worth repeating: they do not allow genetically modified crops in Finland; in fact none of the ingredients in Simpli products contain GMOs. And, since they’re grown in Finland, no irrigation is needed because of the immense amount of rainfall. Less irrigation is lighter and healthier for the soil and preserves fresh water resources. We love that. They were also the first company to introduce water footprint labeling on food products, and the first company in Europe to start using carbon footprint labels on their packages. Clearly, not all oats are created equal.
This post is sponsored by Simpli. LiveSimpli.com
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger