Healthy Living: Do you know your oats?

Have you wondered why are there so many varieties of oats and what are the differences between each type?
Have you ever substituted one type for another, thinking they are the same?

I certainly had.

Why are there so many variants and names for oats? Are quick oats the same as instant oats? How about rolled oats vs. old-fashioned oats? Then what are steel-cut oats?

Which is healthier? Which type should I buy?

Let me first start with where all of these came from - Oat Groats. As you go down the list of the common oat cuts, the type of oats are increasingly being processed so as to cut down on the cooking time needed.

Oat Groats are the whole unbroken form of oat kernels that have their hulls removed. Hulls are the tough protective shell outside the seed of the oat plant. They are exposed to low heat to make them shelf-stable. Oat groats are the most packed with nutrition and fibre (though differences not huge) but they take the longest time to prepare and have a chewier touch when cooked.

Steel-Cut Oats

The least refined version of oat groats in this list, Steel-cut oats are oat groats chopped into few smaller pieces rather than rolled.

Taste/Texture: Coarser, Nuttier, Chewier and retains much of its shape when cooked.
Cooking time: It takes about an average of 15-30 minutes to cook. You can soak it beforehand to reduce the cooking time as well.

Rolled/Old-fashioned Oats

Rolled oats, or old-fashioned oats, are flat and disc-shaped. Just as the name suggests, rolled oats are first steamed then pressed and flattened to make it thinner. Many recipes call for rolled oats to be included. You can add it in your baked goods like cookies, bread and granola bars. It is partially cooked to shorten the preparation time.

Taste/Texture: Milder flavour and softer texture.
Cooking time: As they are partially cooked and absorb more liquid than steel-cut oats, preparation time takes around 5 to 10 minutes. They hold they shape relatively well when cooked as well.

Quick Oats/Quick-cooking Oats

Quick oats or quick-cooking oats are rolled oats that are further processed to reduce their cooking time. They are steamed, rolled and pressed to even smaller and thinner pieces compared to rolled oats. Quick oats have only one ingredient - oats. They are unflavoured and a good option if you are in a rush but still wants stove-cooked oats because they are designed to be cooked on the stovetop like regular oats, just in a less amount of time. However, they can also be microwaved, or add hot water and let sit for a few minutes as well.

Taste/Texture: Mild flavour and mushy, smooth/creamy texture
Cooking time: Absorbs liquid well and can be cooked on stovetop within minutes, or microwaved or adding hot water.

Instant Oats

Instant oats are very similar to (sometimes same as) quick oats. They may be chopped and pressed into even finer and thinner pieces than quick oats, sometimes may even be powdery. Quick oats are designed to be quick, but instant oats are made to be even quicker, so much so that they named it instant!
Instant oats are precooked, dehydrated and often comes in individual small packages that have a lot of sugar, salt, additives, preservatives and many other ingredients added. As much as possible, choose plain, unflavoured ones because certainly, flavoured oats is how you make something unhealthy out of healthy.

Taste/Texture: Blander, retain less texture, cooks up creamy/mushy
Cooking time: Microwave within minutes, or adding hot water and stir (you are basically rehydrating and heating them)

Which is healthier? Which type should I buy? 

Oats are generally a good food option which high in nutritional value. Regardless of the type, all of them contain the same parts of the oat groats and do not vary much in their nutritional content. They are fat- and gluten-free, and are packed in nutrients such as proteins, antioxidants, vitamins, fiber and minerals. Oat itself is gluten-free but it depends on how it is handled and processed, check the food label to ensure you get a gluten-free product. All varieties of oats contain a soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which helps to lower cholesterol and 'bad' LDL. Eating them cause a gradual spike in blood sugar and an increased sense of fullness, which helps to stabilise blood sugar and aids in weight loss. However, do note that the smaller the oat flakes, the more likely the higher the glycemic index (GI) when compared among all the oat variants.

The differences come down to the taste, texture, and cooking time.

All types of oats can and are good to prepare your oatmeal the usual way. However, the difference may come in when you want to use these oats in your baking. Because of the chewiness of steel-cut oats, other types like rolled/quick oats do not make a good substitute if you want something thicker/chewier. On the other hand, rolled oats and quick oats can be used to replace one another in recipes, but rolled oats need a longer cooking time with the final dish having more texture and the oat flakes can be more clearly visible as compared to when quick oats are used. But, if you not particular with having something a little finer, quick oats are good to go. Quick oats can also give the baked goods a more uniform texture. Alternatively, if the recipe calls for quick oats and you only have rolled oats on hand, you can pulse the rolled oats in a food processor a few times
While for instant prepackaged oats, as they are significantly thinner and finer, you may want to use in caution in baking goods. They may absorb too much water from the batter, and thus does not lend any structure to the final product. Unless the recipe specifically calls for instant oats, you do not want to substitute other types of oats with instant oats, as you may further introduce other additives that are present in the instant oats into your bakes when used.

Ultimately, you will still get similar health benefits from whichever type you choose. Avoid flavoured  instant oats prepackaged as all the other additives make the whole meal unhealthy. Season them yourself at home with healthier choices like honey, fruits and nuts! So, whatever oat type you want is based on your personal preferences, amount of cooking time you have and your lifestyle!

I hope this clarifies the differences and helps you to understand your beloved oats a little better. I am very motivated to include oats into my diet now!