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Oat Breeding Program Pursues Health Benefits of Oats

Call it the equine version of fast food.

One of the recent products of South Dakota State University’s oat breeding program is named Shelby427, described as a “racehorse oat” that packs a lot of nutrition for high-performance horses — or ordinary horses, for that matter.

“It’s not only for racehorses. But it has a lot of what they need,” said Lon Hall, project leader for SDSU’s oat breeding program.

But crafting oat varieties with high protein and high test weight suitable for horses and other livestock isn’t the only priority for plant breeders. Horses are having to make room at the trough for humans as scientists continue to learn more about the health benefits of oats in human diets.

Professor Padmanaban Krishnan, a cereal chemist in SDSU’s Department of Health and Nutritional Sciences, says oat bran became something of an industry fad in the late 1980s. Interest is at a healthier level now as scientists look more specifically at the components in oats that give the grain its healthful properties.

“The industry went slightly overboard. There was too much oat bran in a variety of products, and not a standardized oat bran,” Krishnan said. “The interest is still high now. There is a considerable body of animal and human clinical studies that show the health effects.”

In fact it’s easy to sell consumers on oats once they learn the benefits, Krishnan said. “It’s a very tasty cereal grain. It has high-quality protein, a good combination of amino acids and minerals, and the fiber in oats is 50-50 soluble and insoluble, half and half. Very often we find dietary fiber in cereal grains and legumes, but it may be more toward the insoluble fiber,” he said. “In oats we also have something called beta-glucans.”

Beta-glucans help make up the soluble fiber that helps lower cholesterol.

“We don’t know the exact mechanism but we do know that cholesterol reduction occurs. Beta-glucans give oatmeal its unique mouthfeel. The cholesterol-reduction mechanism we associate with beta-glucans could be due to a combination of viscosity effects and binding effects on bile salts in the gut. If bile salts are bound and then removed continually, this leads to a reduction of cholesterol in the blood,” Krishnan said.

There’s also growing interest now in a group of compounds called avenanthramides that are known to have a role in fighting atherosclerosis, or the thickening of the artery walls due to the build-up of fatty materials such as cholesterol.

“Avenanthramides function as anti-oxidants in our cells once they’re consumed and absorbed by the body,” Krishnan said. “We know that these plant compounds have health attributes or disease-prevention attributes. They may maintain the integrity of cell membranes, they may retard cancer production or slow it down considerably.”

Scientists have some indications that if a plant is stressed due to environmental growing conditions, or if they are responding to certain diseases, there may be elevated levels of avenanthramides. There may also be a genetic component in what makes varieties higher in avenanthramides. That gives plant breeders such as SDSU’s Lon Hall some avenues to pursue, Krishnan said.

“Lon Hall’s idea is produce varieties that have enhanced levels of avenanthramides and then ultimately to include that in our food system,” Krishnan said.

One of Hall’s projects is to come up with an oat variety that combines high levels of avenanthramides with high beta-glucan levels for an oat that is very heart-healthy — a variety that would be clearly aimed at the human consumer.

National Agricultural Statistics Service data show that acres of oats harvested hit a peak in 1921 at 45.5 million acres and has been in steady decline since then, down to about 1.3 million acres in 2010. Yields have soared, but there’s clearly much smaller demand for oats now than in the past.

“I think in the future we are going to see an increased interest in oats for human consumption as people learn more about the health benefits of avenanthramides in addition to the beta-glucans,” Hall said.

Krishnan adds that increasing the knowledge about the benefits of oats in human diets could pay off for the producers who grow for that human market.

“Generally, when you go from animal feed to human food in terms of end use, you see a tenfold increase in economic value of the grain,” he said.

Lance Nixon
Professor Padmanaban Krishnan, cereal chemist
Department of Health and Nutritional Sciences
South Dakota State University

Lance Nixon | Newswise Science News
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