Reaping What You Sow: The Benefits Of Oat Cuisine

From Europe to the US, oats are demonstrating their diversity as scientific research spurs manufacturers to launch a range of products from ice cream to bread and nutrition bars to milk. Patrick McGuigan reports

A hearty bowl of porridge or oatmeal is a popular start to a cold winter?s morning in many countries, but scientists have also discovered that oats are hearty—in a literal sense. Research shows that the soluble fibre beta-glucan found in oats can help reduce cholesterol as well as balance blood sugar and help people to diet. Spurred on by these findings, functional foods manufacturers are now seriously looking at using oat beta-glucan in a new generation of products that go way beyond the traditional breakfast cereal market.

Interest has been heightened by a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruling in 1997 that approved heart health claims on products containing 0.75g oat beta-glucan. Products containing this amount can carry a ?may reduce the risk of heart disease? message.

Meanwhile, in Europe, oat-based products, particularly oat milks, have shown excellent growth in Scandinavia and are gaining acceptance in other European countries. In response to these developments, ingredients suppliers on both sides of the Atlantic have been busy isolating and concentrating oat beta-glucan so that it can be easily incorporated into foods.

This combination of factors means we may be witnessing the green shoots of a new functional foods trend. One company hoping these initial seedlings blossom in the future is Finn Cereal in Finland. Under its Natureal brand, Finn supplies a range of oat brans that have been enriched with beta-glucan for a range of applications including bread, nutrition bars and meal replacement drinks.

The company estimates that, on average, Western consumers eat less than 0.5g of oat beta-glucan per day, when at least 3g is recommended to have a significant effect on cholesterol levels. Part of the problem is that conventional oat products contain relatively low levels of beta-glucan (2?4 per cent), so consumers have to eat an awful lot of oats to get the health benefits. But Finn Cereal?s Natureal oat bran is enriched to contain 15 per cent beta-glucan, so by incorporating 5g into a product serving, manufacturers can meet FDA health claims requirements.

Scandinavia Traditions
In Europe, health claims legislation is a patchwork affair, varying from country to country. ?The situation is very confusing. It is an obstacle for some companies,? says Finn Cereal?s general manager Markku Patajoki. But in Sweden and Finland, Patajoki says there is clearer legislation on health claims for oat flakes and oat bran. This may be one of the reasons why Nordic countries lead the way in incorporating oats and oat beta-glucan into functional foods in Europe. Another reason might be the long tradition of growing and eating oats in these countries.

Whatever the case, Patajoki says the company?s oat brans are used in several health breads in the region, as well as in Fazer?s new iLOVE nutrition bars. ?Breads have been popular because they are an easy way to incorporate a lot of beta-glucan compared to other products,? says Patajoki. ?We also have several recipes for fresh and dry pasta. Raisio has been using oats in dry pasta under its Benecol brand for some time now in Finland.?

He adds that it is still early days for the company and oat bran in general: ?Finn Cereal only started three years ago and we had our first commercial launch in 2002. It takes time for food companies to develop the products. People in Sweden and Finland have always regarded oats as healthy, but the rest of Europe is not so aware. There needs to be more communication, perhaps through recommendations from doctors.?

Milking The Oats Market
Oat milk has extended the use of oats even further. Market data company Organic Monitor says that the market for oat drinks in Scandinavia was worth $4.3 million in 2002, which marks a 161 per cent increase since 1999.

The biggest player in this dynamic sector is Swedish company Ceba, which manufactures Oatly. Marketing manager Bengt Anker-Kofoed says sales are growing by 30 per cent a year. ?Most interest in our product starts from a lactose intolerance perspective,? he says. ?Our customers are of all ages, but they are usually nutritionally well educated.? In Scandinavia and the UK Oatly is available in supermarkets, but in central and southern Europe, it retails mainly through health food shops.

The growing interest in oats and their health benefits is reflected in current research at Lund University in Sweden, which is aimed at isolating high purity soluble beta-glucans from oats to develop new food prototypes, such as ice cream. Ceba is one of the partners of the project along with D?hler Euro Citrus and Findus. The research is being funded with a $3.5 million grant from the European Commission, which is keen to reduce obesity levels and the prevalence of heart disease, as well as the costs of treating them.

US Consumers Know Their Oats
The country with the biggest waistlines, the US, has also been keen to join the beta-glucan bandwagon. Quaker Oats, famous for its oatmeal, has been working hard to communicate the health benefits of eating oats through marketing campaigns backed by clinical research. For example, earlier this year scientists from Columbia University and Quaker Oats presented evidence that the risk of obesity is lower for children who regularly eat oatmeal compared to those who do not.

Moreover, consumers in the US already have a good understanding of the health benefits of oats. A recent survey conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute found that 54 per cent of adults in the US associate the benefits of oats with heart health, far more than any other product. Finn Cereal estimates annual per capita consumption of oat products in Europe to be 1.5kg, while in the US the figure is 3.5kg.

This is good news for Pennsylvania-based ingredients supplier Nurture, which produces a highly concentrated oat bran soluble fibre under the OatVantage brand. One and a half grams of OatVantage in an individual serving delivers 0.75g of oat beta-glucan—enough for a FDA heart health claim, says the company. Nurture launched the new ingredient only in March 2002 and so far has developed yoghurts, crackers and nutritional bars. ?We are working with a yoghurt manufacturer on a new product and another customer is launching a major nutritional bar with OatVantage very soon,? says chairman Griff Parker. ?There may also be a meal replacement drink on the way.?

According to Parker, if a company wishes to use OatVantage, Nurture asks that its brand name be displayed on the finished product?s packaging. Like Benecol from Raisio, the company hopes OatVantage will develop into a branded ingredient recognised by consumers for its health benefits, although Parker concedes that if the food manufacturer is large enough, this proviso is open to negotiation.

Currently, Nurture is focusing on OatVantage?s cholesterol-lowering properties, even though beta-glucans have also been shown to increase feelings of satiety, balance blood glucose and improve gut health. This is partly because of FDA clearance allowing heart health claims. ?It?s also because we want to promote a good, clear message to consumers,? continues Parker. ?When the cholesterol benefits are well known, then perhaps we can move onto satiety benefits, but it?s one step at a time.?

The benefits of oat beta-glucan

  • Low cholesterol: Oat beta-glucan reduces the speed at which nutrients, cholesterol and bile acids are absorbed from the alimentary tract. As less bile acids are absorbed into the bloodstream, more cholesterol is used in bile acid synthesis. Liver also produces less cholesterol when oat beta-glucan is present in the diet.
  • Control of blood glucose: By increasing the viscosity of the contents of the gut, oat beta-glucan retards the rise in blood glucose levels following a meal and also delays its decline to pre-meal levels or lower.
  • Bowel function: The breakdown of oat beta-glucan in the large intestine promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria. It also reduces constipation.
  • Weight control: Oat beta-glucan increases the viscosity of the gut?s contents, making both the stomach and intestine and feel fuller. It lowers the rate at which nutrients are absorbed from the small intestine, delays gastric emptying, so the sensation of satiation lasts longer. As more fat is excreted in the faeces, less fat remains in the body.

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