Updated date:

Oats, Oatmeal, and Porridge: Plant Facts and Food Uses

Linda Crampton is a former teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about nutrition and the culture and history of food.

A panicle of spikelets on an oat plant that is growing in a field

A panicle of spikelets on an oat plant that is growing in a field

A Very Useful Grain

Oats are my favorite grain. I love the creamy texture of a bowl of oatmeal, or porridge as it’s called in the British tradition. The grain is used for more than just creating breakfast. It forms the basis of some potentially delicious breads, cakes, cookies, puddings, and drinks. The grain and the plant as a whole also have non-culinary uses and are a great resource.

Like other plants that produce grain, oat plants belong to the grass family. This family is scientifically known as the Poaceae family or the Gramineae one. The part of the plant that we eat is its seed. The word "grain' is used to refer to this seed or to the plant as a whole. Some people used the term "cereal grain" for a plant that produces grain to differentiate it from its seeds. Cereal grains have played an important role in human history.

Monocotyledons and Avena sativa

The family Poaceae belongs to a major group of flowering plants known as the monocotyledons, or the monocots. They have a single cotyledon, or seed leaf, within their seed. (Dicotyledons, the other major group of flowering plants, have two cotyledons in their seeds.) Monocots also have a collection of more noticeable characteristics. One of them is their long and narrow leaves with parallel veins. Another is reproductive structures that are usually present in multiples of three.

The scientific name of an oat plant is Avena sativa. Its leaves are long and narrow, as in other monocots. They have a pointed tip and form a sheath where they are attached to the stem. A small ligule or outgrowth is present at the site of attachment. It's shown in the time lapse video above. The plant is an annual one.

Spikelets and Panicles of Oat Plants

Some monocots have attractive flowers consisting of petals and sepals located around the reproductive structures. The flowers in the grass family have a different and less showy structure. Those of oat plants can't be seen directly. They are hidden in the spikelets.

The spikelets are the pointed structures located on the flower stalks. They can be seen in the first photo in this article and in the one above. Each spikelet is covered by a pair of long, strongly veined, and pointed bracts known as glumes.

The collection of spikelets on a stalk is called a panicle. The panicle is a type of inflorescence because its stalk bears multiple flowers instead of only one. The flowers of an inflorescence are technically called florets.

An opened spikelet is shown in a relative of the oat below. The ones on oat plants generally contain three florets, as might be expected for a monocot, but one of them fails to fully develop. Each of the functional florets has a similar structure to the one shown in the photo and illustration below.

A floret inside a spikelet of Bromus hordeaceus (a member of the grass family) and an unopened spikelet

A floret inside a spikelet of Bromus hordeaceus (a member of the grass family) and an unopened spikelet

The Florets Inside the Spikelets

The glumes of a spikelet cover two smaller bracts called the lemma and the palea. The lemma often bears a long extension called the awn. The lemma and the palea surround the stamens (the male reproductive structures), and the carpel (the female reproductive structure).

Small scales called lodicules cover the base of the carpel. When the flower is mature, the lodicules absorb water and swell, pushing the floret open so that fertilization can occur. The lemma, palea, stamens, carpel, and lodicules form the floret.

Reproductive Structures in a Floret

A stamen consists of an anther bearing pollen grains and a stalk called the filament. An oak floret has either three stamens or multiples of three. A carpel consists of a stigma that catches pollen grains, a stalk called the style, and an ovary at the base. An oak floret has one carpel, which bears two feathery stigmas.

Fertilization in the grass family generally occurs by wind. The ovary of the carpel contains an ovule. An egg cell inside the ovule is fertilized by a sperm cell from a pollen grain that landed on a stigma. The ovule then becomes a seed.

Structure of the Caryopsis or Fruit

In flowering plants, including those in the grass family, seeds are produced from the fertilized ovules inside an ovary. The ovary ripens to become a fruit and distributes the seeds in some way.

Fruits are not always juicy and sweet. Oat plants produce a fruit called a caryopsis. The caryopsis is a dry fruit containing only one seed, which is firmly attached to the wall of the ovary.

An oat caryopsis and its covering consist of the following components.

  • The hull or husk covers the mature ovary. The hull is derived from the lemma and the palea.
  • The ovary contains the kernel or groat, which is the seed of the fruit.
  • The groat is the part that is eaten and that can produce a new plant. It consists of an outer layer called the bran, a middle layer called the endosperm, and an inner layer called the germ.
  • The germ is the location of the embryo and is where germination of the new plant occurs.

Harvesting oat groats can be quite a challenge for someone without special equipment. The hull and the wall of the ovary must be removed in order to get to the seed. In some types of processing, different components of the seeds are obtained.

Types of Oats in Grocery Stores

Oats are sold as whole groats or as parts of the groat, such as oat bran or oat flour. The flour is made from the endosperm or sometimes from the whole groat. The groats may be specially processed before being sold, as described below.

Steel-Cut Oats

Steel-cut oats are the least processed form of the grain apart from the whole groats. The groats are cut into pieces by metal blades. The pieces take longer to cook than the forms described below.

Groats Ground into a Meal

My favorite form of oats is Scottish oatmeal. The product consists of groats that have been ground to make a fine meal, which can produce a creamy breakfast when mixed with hot milk. In Britain, where I grew up, this breakfast is known as porridge. I like to add a reasonably healthy sweetener, some nut or seed butter, and fruit to my porridge. For a special treat, I add cocoa powder to the mix to make chocolate porridge.

Rolled Oats

To make rolled oats, the groats are heated and pressed flat. This decreases the cooking time. According to Berkeley Wellness (a University of California website), three types of rolled oats exist: "old-fashioned (the whole grain is rolled), quick-cooking (the grains are sliced before rolling), and instant (the grains are precooked, dried, and then rolled very thin)."

Instant Oatmeal

Instant oatmeal contains cooked rolled oats and not a ground meal as its name suggests. It’s often said that the product is not as nutritious as a type that is less processed. Researchers say that this isn’t the case, however. The level of major nutrients in the instant variety of the grain is the same as in other varieties. The investigators say that we do need to consider the additions to instant oatmeal, however. Sugar, salt, flavors, and preservatives can make the product less healthy than other forms of the grain.

Other Culinary Uses of Oats

In addition to buying one of the products described above and following the preparation instructions on the package, the following products can be made or in some cases bought.

Cold Rolled Oats and Overnight Oats

Rolled oats have been heated and partially cooked. They are edible without additional cooking. (This is not the case with the less processed forms of the grain.) When I was a child, I frequently ate cold rolled oats mixed with milk for breakfast. The meal has a chewy consistency instead of a creamy one. Some people today like to prepare overnight oats. They soak rolled oats in milk overnight in the refrigerator, which creates a convenient breakfast.

Muesli and Granola

Muesli is a mixture of rolled oats, nuts, seeds, and fruits that is mixed with milk and eaten as a cold breakfast cereal. Granola contains similar ingredients, but it's a baked product.

Bread and Cake

Oats in one form or another are an important component of some foods. These include oat or oatmeal bread. They also include the moist and sticky cake called parkin. It's a traditional treat in Yorkshire and contains oatmeal and ginger.

Oat cakes usually resemble biscuits (or cookies as they're called in North America), despite their name. Unlike cakes, they aren't particularly sweet and taste more like crackers than cookies. They are often eaten with cheese, chutney, or other savory additions, though sweet spreads can be nice with oat cakes as well. The oat cakes that I buy look like the ones in the video screen below.

Flapjacks, Cookies, and Pudding

Flapjacks are another oat-based treat that I remember from my childhood. They are sweet bars containing rolled oats and have golden syrup and brown sugar as sweeteners. Sweet oatmeal cookies are commonly available in my local grocery stores, but I prefer the golden syrup taste of flapjacks. Golden syrup is a light-colored liquid resembling treacle in consistency.

Since oats and a liquid can form a thick mixture under certain conditions, they are used to make puddings. Additions such as bananas, strawberries, peanut butter, or cocoa can create delicious desserts.

Oat Milk

Oat milk can be bought in stores. It can also made at home by blending rolled oats with water and then filtering the liquid. It's a good product for those who can't or don't want to eat or drink dairy products. Commercial oat milks usually contain added vitamins and minerals, which could be beneficial. Unsweetened varieties of oat milk can be purchased as well as sweetened ones.

World Porridge Making Championship

Porridge has become part of an annual tradition in Britain. The World Porridge Making Championship is held on October 10th every year. It takes place in the village of Carrbridge in Scotland. Competitors from different countries participate in the event. It demonstrates that making porridge can be a more ambitious project than cooking oatmeal in a hot liquid. In addition to a regular porridge division in the competition, there's a speciality porridge one.

2020 was the year of the 27th World Porridge Championship. Until this year, a golden spurtle (or at least one that had a gold surface) was given to the winner of the competition. A spurtle was once a popular tool in Scotland. It's a wooden stick used to stir porridge.

Changes appeared in the 2020 competition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of being present in person, the competitors sent the competition organizers videos demonstrating their porridge-making skills and showing their creations. The only division in the competition was the specialty porridge one. The winner received a "Perfect Porridge" package from the event's sponsor. Hopefully, the event will be back to normal next year.

Nutritional Content of Oats

Oats are a great source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They are rich in thiamine and contain a significant quantity of folate and pantothenic acid. They are very rich in manganese. The level of phosphorous, magnesium, copper, zinc, and iron is also significant. The potassium level is lower but still useful.

Oats are a nutritional standout with respect to dietary fiber. Fiber is soluble or insoluble. Oats contain a large amount of soluble fiber, especially in the form of a substance called beta-glucan. Soluble fiber is the type that lowers the level of LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream, possibly by more than one method. Though LDL cholesterol is a normal substance in the body, it can cause circulatory problems when it's present in an excessive amount.

Pure oats don't contain gluten. Oats may be contaminated with gluten-containing grains in the field or during processing, however. Anyone whose health is affected by gluten should make sure that they buy oat products that bear a gluten-free label. This precaution may not be sufficient for someone with a serious gluten-intolerance problem, however. The warning below should be noted.

World Porridge Day

World Porridge Day coincides with the competition described above. It was established by the village of Carrbridge and a Scottish charity called Mary's Meals. The goal of the charity is to provide a daily meal to chronically hungry children in different countries so that they can go to school, get an education, and escape from poverty. Even if the entire plan doesn't work, the goal of feeding hungry children is a very worthy one.

The golden spurtle website says that "where children receive Mary’s Meals in their place of education, there is a rise in enrolment, attendance and academic performance." The charity currently works in eighteen countries.

The organizers of World Porridge Day suggest that people hold a porridge party on October 10th. They say that people could provide porridge and other foods made from oats to visitors in return for a donation to Mary's Meals. They also have other porridge-linked suggestions for helping the charity on their website.

A Versatile Plant

The seeds of oats have many uses and are used to create some tasty foods. I always have oats in some form in my kitchen and eat them often. The grain is versatile and has applications beyond culinary ones.

Some scientists are investigating the properties of specific chemicals in oats, which may be helpful for us. For example, avenanthramides are a group of oat chemicals that are believed to be responsible for reducing inflammation and itching in certain skin problems. This may be why some skin creams containing oats have been found to be beneficial. The oat plant is interesting scientifically and with respect to its ability to help humans. I think it's worth investigating further.

References

  • Structure and development of oats (abstract and preview) from springer.com
  • Oat facts from the Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Information about oat plants from Purdue University
  • The process of oat milling from the North American Millers' Association
  • Nutrients in oats from NutritionData at self.com (based on data provided by the USDA, or the United States Department of Agriculture)
  • Whole-grain goodness from Berkeley Wellness
  • More facts about the food from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Oats and celiac disease from the Celiac Disease Foundation
  • Facts about World Porridge Day from the Golden Spurtle website

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 01, 2020:

Thanks for the visit, Adrienne. I appreciate your comment.

Adrienne Farricelli on December 01, 2020:

Enjoyed learning more about these nutritious plants. Thanks for explaining so clearly the differences between steel cut, groats and rolled oats.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 30, 2020:

Thanks for the comment, EK. Good luck with the exam!

EK Jadoon from Abbottabad Pakistan on November 30, 2020:

It was a good read, Alicia. My Mom and Dad use to eat oatmeal with dry nuts and fruits. Actually, I am preparing for my exam which is very competitive. Wish me good luck.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 30, 2020:

Hi, Mary. Yes, porridge can be very healthy as well as filling. It can make a great meal. Thank you for commenting.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 30, 2020:

I love porridge in the morning, and I add nuts and dried fruits or fresh ones to make it even more healthy. It's very filling.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 29, 2020:

Thank you very much for the comment, Manatita. I appreciate the hub, too! I'll look out for it.

People usually call porridge oatmeal here. I tend to switch between between the terms porridge and oats in my life.

manatita44 from london on November 29, 2020:

Linda C, a meticulous and detailed article. A lot about oats. I use to love it, but I seem to be 'sensitive' to it these days. I note the nutritional value you mention though. Woe me!

A competition? Again, what do you call 'porridge' in Canada? I don't recall seeing what you said. You have given us some very detailed photos. Excellent Hub!

Oh! I did a Hub for you! Peace.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 28, 2020:

Thank you for sharing the interesting story, Liza. (I'm sure the event was more annoying than interesting for you!) I appreciate your comment.

Liza from USA on November 28, 2020:

Oatmeal is healthy and versatile food. However, I have had a not so great experience while traveling with instant oatmeal in a cup. One time, the TSA opened the oatmeal and tossed it in my luggage. Next time I know the oatmeal was all over my clothes. But, I learned a lesson. Never put instant oatmeal in the luggage? Love your article, Linda. As usual, very informative. Thanks for sharing!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 28, 2020:

Thank you for the visit and comment, Eman.

Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on November 28, 2020:

A very informative article. Thank you for sharing all this information about oats.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 27, 2020:

Thank you for the kind comment, Fran.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on November 27, 2020:

Again great article and I LOVE oatmeal--heart healthy. All your articles are pages right out of a biology book. Great detail and informative.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 27, 2020:

I appreciate your kind comment, Peggy. Thank you for the visit.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 27, 2020:

Hi Alicia,

Whenever I see a topic covered by you, I know that I will be learning something new. We always keep rolled oats in our pantry and use it to make oatmeal, oatmeal cookies, etc. I never knew that there was a porridge contest, nor did I know about that worthwhile charity. Thanks for writing another informative article.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 27, 2020:

Thanks, Bill! I hope you have a wonderful weekend, too.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 27, 2020:

Hi, Pamela. I appreciate your comment very much. There are many interesting facts linked to oats. It's a part of the culture in some places.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 27, 2020:

Thank, Devika. I'm glad that you found the article informative.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 27, 2020:

As always, an excellent article from you, Linda! I was expecting one about an animal or insect, so the oats topic threw me for a second. :) Great information, which I always expect from you. Have a wonderful weekend.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 27, 2020:

This is a terrifi article with a wealth of well researched information, Linda. I like oatmeal, so it was very interesting to read all the information about how is is grown and processed.

I have never tried the milk and I usually buy coconut milk. I am going to look for the oatmeal milk. I never heard of the porridge competition. I would have never thought there was so much to learn about oatmeal.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 27, 2020:

AliciaC I have learned a lot from your hub. These facts are interesting, and most fascinating about Oats, Oatmeal and porridge. I didn't think of the differences and you informed me about each in detail.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 26, 2020:

Hi, Liz. No, I don't think flapjacks could be described as healthy, but I like them. I remember seeing pots of oats in my local stores several years ago, but they've disappeared now. Thanks for the comment and for sharing your experience with oats.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 26, 2020:

This is a well-researched and very interesting article. Porridge with mashed banana is my regular breakfast meal. It's slow release energy keeps me going until lunchtime. Flapjacks have long been a family favourite, although the sugar and golden syrup content is probably mot so healthy. In recent years, the variety

of easy mix oat based pots has expanded a lot. They tend to be aimed at creating a quick and easy breakfast on the go experience, but I find them a little sweet and processed. I once heard of someone recovering from a stomach ulcer who recommended porridge with honey.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 26, 2020:

Thank you, Ankita. I appreciate your visit and comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 26, 2020:

I love condensed milk! It's very sweet, but it's delicious. Thank you for the comment, Edwin.

Ankita B on November 26, 2020:

This was so much interesting to read. I definitely learned a lot more about the types and the uses of oats. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article.

Edwin Alcantara from California on November 26, 2020:

Very informative. I learned a lot of new things. In the Philippines, we mix the old fashioned rolled oats with condensed milk. Personally, I like adding cocoa powder too, to make chocolate oatmeal. Can't wait to try Scottish oatmeal, since I've never had it before. Thanks for the article.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 26, 2020:

I like cream with oatmeal, too. It can be delicious. There's one toasted oat cereal that I like and buy occasionally. Fruit is always good with breakfast cereal!

Linda Chechar from Arizona on November 26, 2020:

I like oatmeal! Breakfast steel oatmeal is warm winter with cream or butter and brown sugar. I also like toasted oats that are like cereals with milk, bananas or blueberries!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 26, 2020:

Hi, Chitrangada. I love the fact that oats can be used in so many ways. I appreciate their nutrients, too. Thank you for the comment,

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on November 26, 2020:

Excellent article with lot of valuable information about Oats, Oatmeal and Porridge day.

Oats are no doubt, full of nutrition and it should be included in our daily diet. I do have oats for breakfast, and also make cookies and snacks with it.

As always, your article is informative and educational with some interesting information. Thank you for sharing.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 26, 2020:

I appreciate your comment, Nithya. I think that oats are interesting plants.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on November 26, 2020:

Great article about oats; detailed with photos. I use rolled oats in my cooking but I take instant oats for breakfast. Thank you for sharing an interesting and informative article about oats.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 26, 2020:

Hi, Flourish. I eat instant oatmeal at times, but I try to eat the less processed versions as much as possible. I prefer the ones that consist of grains instead of flakes. Thanks for commenting.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 26, 2020:

I like instant oatmeal for breakfast, although I admit to liking the sweeter varieties. At least it's healthier than skipping or grabbing a donut, etc. Your article was very informative. I've seen steel cut oats in the grocery store and tried them once and wowsa they were different from what I was used to. Your article is a good explanation as to why.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 26, 2020:

Thank you, Glenn, I appreciate your visit and comment very much.

Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on November 26, 2020:

I sure learned a lot from your article Linda. I never knew oatmeal and porridge are the same thing.

I happen to like oatmeal for breakfast because I know it helps lower the bad (LDL) cholesterol, as you mentioned. But I always use instant oatmeal.

Now, thanks to your article, I'm going to look for rolled oats instead. I like chewy texture too, so I think I'll like that.

I learned so much more from your article about oat plants and oat products. This was very educational.

Related Articles