In the family breakfast foods, oatmeal assumes the role of dignified and soothing grandparent. As a cooked cereal, it seems a bit antiquated. But just a whiff of the cinnamon-scented steam rising from a bowl of oats stirs a hundred cozy memories.
Like other old-timers, oats have had their heyday. In the 1980s, Americans stocked up on oat bran (the outer layer of the grain) for its purported cholesterol- lowering properties. When oat bran was found to be beneficial but not miraculous, consumers lost interest.
More than a decade later, the focus has shifted. Nutritionists are embracing the entire oat clan: oat groats (the most basic form, simply hulled whole oats), rolled oats (the familiar "old-fashioned" type, which are groats that have been rolled, or flattened, for faster cooking), and steel-cut oats (groats that are cut with steel blades instead of rolled), as well as oat bran.
This time around, the emphasis is on oats not as a dietary panacea, but as one source of good nutrition. "Oats really are a wonderful addition to anybody's diet," says Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center. Oats (and oat bran) are full of fiber and bolster cardiovascular health. "Studies indicate that oats might help keep 'bad' cholesterol from gunking up arteries," Heller says. How? They contain a goodly amount of beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that binds to cholesterol. Nutritionally speaking, oats in nearly all their forms are comparable (bran has slightly more fiber); added sugar and sodium, and artificial flavorings, however, often make precooked, dried instant oatmeal slightly less healthful.
At home, try oats in different ways: Begin one day with that scented, steaming porridge (ours has dates and banana). Work them into the next day's meals in whole-wheat bread or dried fruit bars. Another time, incorporate nutty oat groats into a savory side dish with kale and Parmesan. Their versatility (and virtue) will show you that wise old oats aren't so stodgy after all.