Oats are an ancient crop—the earliest known oat grains were found in Egyptian remains dating 4,000 years ago—but oats were not used for food as early as wheat or barley. It was much later, and further north, that oats were first cultivated as an edible crop.
Europeans brought oats to North America in 1602 and planted in New England. Along with Canada, Russia, Finland and Poland, the United States is still a leading producer of oats. The crop thrives in areas with a cool, moist climate, and so it is primarily a North American and European product. It is a hardy grain that can survive in even poor soil conditions.
The majority of oats are used for animal feed, but it is increasingly popular as food for people, and not only as traditional oatmeal. Oat bran (the fibre-rich outer husk of the oat grain) has received significant attention for its role in reducing blood cholesterol. Breakfast cereals and bread products are frequently made from oat flour and rolled oats. Several studies since 1963 have identified beta-glucan, a special type of fibre found in oats, as capable of lowering a subject’s total cholesterol by 8-23%, which significantly decreases the risk of developing heart disease. Oats have also been found to have unique antioxidant compounds called avenanthramides, which also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The beta-glucan in oats has also been shown to stabilize blood sugar in patients with Type 2 diabetes.