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Food: Grains

Oats Through History

Nearly 10,000 Years Ago

Oats are known to have been in usage by the ancient Chinese, dating back as long ago as 7,000 BC. The ancient Greeks even used oats in a way we would recognize today as porridge. However most ancient Greeks, like the ancient Romans, did not like oats and used them for feeding to their livestock. They were seen as a weed and of particular annoyance, as wild oats would often compete in cultivated grain fields of barley and wheat.

Several Thousand Years Ago

In Europe during the Bronze Age there is evidence to show oats were being used as cattle feed, and by around 1,000 BC it was being cultivated, as it proved to be a reliable crop in cold and wet conditions. The further North you go in Europe the colder it gets with the growing season becoming shorter and wetter. This makes the use of oats favorable above other grains (such as wheat), particularly in countries like Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Poland, Germany etc.

Hundreds of Years Ago

In the USA, Scottish and Dutch immigrants from the 1600’s (some of them Quakers) are generally accredited with introducing recipes using oats into the country. Interestingly, in 1877 the famous Quaker Oats Company were the first US breakfast cereal business to register their trademark, the “Quaker Man” brand image (known as “Larry”). The image was used as Quakers represented “Honesty, Integrity and Purity”, at this time (the late 1800’s) consumers could not always rely on products being unadulterated.

In 1755 the famous English writer Dr. Samuel Johnson defined oats as: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.” The Scottish retort to this was: “That’s why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such fine men!” With comments suggesting oat eaters will develop a “whinny”, it is certain eating oats has gained a stigma across the centuries. However, before any one jumps on the bandwagon and continues to deride oats any further, consider this: The ancient Romans were unable to expand their Western Empire any further North because of the Scots and Irish in the UK and the Germanic Barbarians in mainland Europe – all of whom were oat eaters! Indeed it was the oat eating Germanic Barbarians (from the Balkans and Scandinavia) who ended up sacking Rome and bringing down an Empire. So if an empire needs toppling perhaps we should stop horsing around and start eating our oats!

A term commonly found, particularly from Victorian literature, is “Gruel”. This is in fact oatmeal (or a variation of it) as it would be porridge made of any grain (e.g. barley, wheat, rye, oats etc.) with water and salt added. Usually thick in consistency, in hard times it would be weak and watery so as to stretch to feed the whole family. Certainly representative of meals for impoverished families it was commonly used in institutions such as workhouses, orphanages etc.

Anyone familiar with the works of Charles Dickens will find gruel often referred to, and in the novel Oliver Twist there is a scene where Oliver asks for more gruel, to great despair and consternation by his “guardians”. This is depicted in an amusing way by the musical “Oliver”, and here’s the scene from the 1968 film version of the musical. This scene was preceded by the song “Food, glorious food” and gives some idea of how poorly thought of oatmeal or porridge had become. It seems we reverted back to “bashing” this grain, despite what history has told us about it being a powerful food source.

Modern Times

Today the Quaker Oats Company is the best-known brand of oats in the country and in our opinion they also sell one of the best tasting instant oat brands. Look in any pantry, in any home in the USA and 75 to 80% will have oats in them. It is thought in the USA alone around 500 million bowls of oatmeal are consumed each year. The biggest producers of oats are Canada, Finland, Poland, Russia and the USA. Yet despite the amazing health benefits to be gained from consuming oats, humans only eat around 5% of all the oats produced across the world.

The late 1980’s saw an “oat craze” across the USA due to reports of oats being able to lower blood cholesterol levels. This oat craze peaked again in the late 1990’s when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agreed for some oats food products to be able to claim they “may reduce the risk of heart disease when combined with a low-fat diet” on their labels. Besides their direct usage, the food industry also uses oats as a stabilizer or thickener for other foods (e.g. ice cream) and the cosmetic industry uses them in various products (e.g. skin lotions). Oats have a natural property making them ideal in the fight against itching and the commercial brand “Aveeno” (taken from the botanical name Avena) is perhaps the best-known company to have harnessed this in their cosmetic products.

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