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Oats, from weed to beneficial cereal

Oats, native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, have taken root throughout history as a fundamental food, thanks to their significant contribution of proteins, lysine, dietary fiber (β-glucan), vitamins and minerals. Qualities that make it a 'supercereal'.

The oat market

Global oat production , according to FAO, reached about 2022 million tons in 26. The top producers are Canada and Russia, accounting for 20 percent and 17 percent of the total, respectively. (1)

In Italy, demand is growing (as evidenced by thelatest edition of the Immagino Observatory) while the cultivated area decreases, mainly due to the decrease in the equine herd and the characteristics of the plant, which qualifies for

  • high water needs,
  • poor cold resistance,
  • need for cool, humid environments.

According to Istat the area cultivated with oats in Italy decreased by approximately 17%, from 108.459 hectares in 2010 to 102.597 hectares in 2023. Production fell by 22% in the period 2010-2017, reaching 2.354.907 quintals in 2023. (2)

Botany

Avena Sativa L.is an annual herbaceous plant belonging to the family poaceae. It has spread to different parts of the world, adapting to a multitude of climatic conditions, particularly in temperate climates. (3)

oat cultivation in the world
Figure 1. Oat geographical distribution [Source: Royal Botanic Garden Kew]
The plant has erect stems that can reach heights ranging from 20 to 150 cm, depending on environmental conditions and variety. The stems are characterized by a hollow, unbranched structure, with lanceolate leaves emerging mainly from the upper part of the stem. The leaves, 15 to 40 cm long and 5 to 15 mm wide, have rough surfaces and end in a sharp tip, contributing to the plant's characteristic morphology. (4)

The flowering generally takes place between July and August. The plant produces an erect and open panicle inflorescence, between 15 and 30 cm long, with thin lateral branches that branch out slightly. The spikelets, which usually bear two or three flowers, are androgynous and are characterized by their upper floral envelopes, sometimes devoid of gluma. During ripening, the spikelets tend to droop (lodging), giving oats their characteristic appearance in the fields.

Oat seeds, called caryopses, have an ellipsoid shape and are plano-convex, with dimensions between 7 and 8,5 mm in length and 3 and 3,5 mm in width. When ripe, the pericarp of the seed remains fused with the outer seed coat, or in some cases, as in naked oats, the seed separates from the husk and falls naked.

The natural habitat of oats includes ruderal areas, nitrogen-rich soils, and roadsides, from flat levels to mountainous areas. Thanks to its resistance and ability to adapt, it has established itself as a primary crop in many regions, particularly where there is abundant rainfall and a temperate climate. (5)

History. From weed to beneficial cereal

Oats of oats dates back to 2000 BC in the Near Eastern regions. His wild ancestor, Avena sterilis, originated in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East, an area recognized as one of the cradles of agriculture.

Initially considered a weed, was then appreciated for its qualities as food and fodder, especially in regions with cooler and humid climates. Thus its diffusion and subsequent domestication in various parts of the Middle East and Europe grew.

The ancient Greeks and Romans initially underestimated oats, considering them a feed for animals rather than a cereal for human consumption. However, the recognition of this plant grew over time.

In the Middle Ages, began studying its different applications and health benefits. Botanists such as Lonicer and Mattioli described its medicinal and nutritional properties and suggested its consumption as a food and as a remedy for various diseases. (6)

For centuries, boiled oats or porridge were a mainstay of breakfast in many cultures, especially in England, Scotland and Germany, testifying to its evolution from simple fodder to staple food.

Cultivation

Oats are best grown in temperate regions. It is less demanding in terms of summer heat than other cereals such as wheat, rye or barley, and shows greater tolerance to rain. Well-drained soils are ideal for its growth. This characteristic makes oats particularly valuable in areas with cool, humid summers, such as northwestern Europe and Iceland.

Sowing is generally carried out in spring in the colder regions, as soon as the soil becomes workable. But it can be sown in both autumn and spring, depending on the local climate, and has good cold tolerance. Seeding rates vary depending on soil type and climate conditions, but generally range between 100-175 kilograms per hectare (Kg/ha). Fertilizer needs for oats include nitrogen, phosphorus (in the form of phosphorus pentoxide), and potassium, with specific amounts depending on previous soil fertility and the specific needs of the crop.

Weed management in oat fields it is essential to guarantee maximum yield. As a cover crop, oats help improve soil structure, reduce erosion and control weeds, naturally smothering many weeds, some tall or broadleaf weeds may still be a problem and may require moderate use of herbicides.

Although generally hardy, the plant can be affected by various pathologies, in particular rust and anthracnose, which attack stems and leaves.

Fusarium disease is one of the most devastating diseases of cereal crops, affecting the yield and quality of the crop, is another threat. This disease is caused by several species of Fusarium. The accumulation of mycotoxins in cereal grains is dangerous for humans and animals. Hofgaard et al. (2016) studied the effect of tillage on the virulence of Fusarium species and found that tillage significantly affected the inoculum potential of Fusarium. Two kinds of Fusarium, F. avenaceum e F. graminearum, were found to have a lower inoculum potential on plowed land than on harrowed land. (7)

Grain production is very variable: the average yield varies between 3-5 tons/ha.

Nutritional characteristics

Oats are rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber, B vitamins, minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, magnesium and iron, and antioxidants. Notable is its content of β-glucan, a soluble fiber that helps regulate blood glucose and cholesterol levels. It also contains protein (8-18%) and essential amino acids such as lysine, which are often in short supply in other grains. (8,9)

Nutritional profile of oats
Table 1. Nutritional characteristics of 100 grams of oat flakes which develop approximately 373 calories [Source: Humanitas]
Abbeele et al. (2018) reported the effect of oat intake on human health, and the results showed that several oat ingredients promoted a stimulation of health-related microbial metabolites in the gut microbiome, which suggests that these ingredients can be used as prebiotic substrates during digestion. (10) In the same study, the authors associated the results with the amount of soluble dietary fiber contained in oats (Abbeele et al., 2018).

Oats have bioactive compounds, such as lipids and beta-glucan, which are associated with improving diet quality by reducing cholesterol, regulating satiety, and protecting against colon carcinogenesis.

The optimal daily consumption of oats is 40-100 g per day (source of 2,5-2,9 g beta-glucan), according to Korczak et al. (2020). This dose has indeed been shown to reduce fecal pH and beneficially alter fecal bacteria. (11)

In addition to the nutritional qualities, oats boast properties that favor their use in special diets, such as gluten-free ones. (12) Although the question of its safety for celiacs has been the subject of debate, recent studies have highlighted that consuming pure oats, free of contamination from other gluten-containing cereals, can be safe for most people with celiac disease . However, it is essential that the oats consumed are certified gluten-free to avoid the risk of cross-contamination. (13)

Uses and Uses of Oats

Oats find use in several forms for human consumption:

  • oat flakes, derived from crushed grains with the shells removed, are mainly used for the preparation of flour, typically considered unsuitable for preparing bread, but used in the production of biscuits and puddings,
  • other breakfast foods are made from whole, hulled grains (groat).

In livestock feed, oats are used both pure and in blends, although their demand has been reduced due to competition with hybrid corn and alfalfa. Straw, on the other hand, serves as both food and bedding for animals.

Industrially, oat hulls are a source of furfural, a chemical compound used in various types of solvents.

For its soothing and hydrating properties it is used in cosmetics. Used in masks, baths or as an ingredient in natural soaps, it helps calm irritated skin, treat eczema and dermatitis.

Conclusions

Oats present themselves as a valuable and multifunctional food, essential for enriching our diet with key nutrients and promoting a healthy diet. Its beneficial properties, ranging from antioxidant to cholesterol-lowering and anti-inflammatory capabilities, make oats an important ally in the prevention of various diseases.

However,, the alarming reduction in the area planted with oats in Italy, which contrasts with a 9% increase in demand, reflects a disconnect between production and consumption that deserves particular attention. This imbalance highlights the need to incentivize oat cultivation through targeted agricultural policies, thus supporting farmers while ensuring a constant supply of this cereal for the domestic market.

Gabriele Sapienza

Footnotes

(1) Crops and livestock products, FAOSTAT, https://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QCL/visualize

(2) Crops: Cereals, legumes, roots, bulbs and tubers, ISTAT,  http://dati.istat.it/Index.aspx?QueryId=33702

(3) Avena sativa L., Acta Plantarum, https://www.actaplantarum.org/flora/flora_info.php?id=1113

(4) Avena sativa L., World Flora Online, https://www.worldfloraonline.org/taxon/wfo-0000852231

(5) Avena sativa L., Royal Botanic Garden Kew, https://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:391732-1

(6) Avena sativa L., A. Volgel Plant Encyclopedia, https://www.avogel.com/plant-encyclopaedia/avena_sativa.php

(7) Hofgaard Ingerd S., Seehusen Till, Aamot Heidi U., Riley Hugh, Razzaghian Jafar, Le Vinh H., Hjelkrem Anne-Grete R., Dill-Macky Ruth, Brodal Guro, Inoculum Potential of Fusarium spp. Relates to Tillage and Straw Management in Norwegian Fields of Spring Oats, Frontiers in Microbiology, 7, 2016 https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/microbiology/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2016.00556 DOI: 10.3389/fmicb.2016.00556

(8) Oats (Includes foods for USDA's Food Distribution Program),USDA, FoodData Central, https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/169705/nutrients

(9) Avena, Humanitas, https://www.humanitas.it/enciclopedia/alimenti/cereali/avena/

(10) Pieter Van den Abbeele, Alison Kamil, Lisa Fleige, Yongsoo Chung, Peter De Chavez, and Massimo Marzorati, Different Oat Ingredients Stimulate Specific Microbial Metabolites in the Gut Microbiome of Three Human Individuals in Vitro, ACS Omega, 2018 3 (10 ), 12446-12456 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsomega.8b01360

(11) Renee Korczak, Megan Kocher, Kelly S Swanson, Effects of oats on gastrointestinal health as assessed by in vitro, animal, and human studies, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 78, Issue 5, May 2020, Pages 343–363, https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuz064

(12) Safety of Adding Oats to a Gluten-Free Diet for Patients With Celiac Disease: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Clinical and Observational Studies, Pinto-Sánchez, María Inés et al., Gastroenterology, Volume 153, Issue 2, 395 – 409.e3 Published: April 18, 2017 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2017.04.009

(13) Comino I, Moreno ML, Sousa C. Role of oats in celiac disease. World J Gastroenterol 2015; 21(41): 11825-11831 [PMID: 26557006 DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.3748/wjg.v21.i41.11825

Trainee Assistant Researcher | Website | + posts

Graduated in Agriculture, with experience in sustainable agriculture and permaculture, laboratory and ecological monitoring.

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