There are very few foods that are permitted, in Europe, to state that their consumption reduces your risk of a specific disease. These claims have to be proved to a high level of scientific scrutiny by the European Food Standards Agency.
One of the few foods to achieve this elevated status is oats. It's been clearly shown that a kind of soluble fibre found in whole oats, known as beta glucan, can reduce cholesterol - if you eat enough oats and do so on a regular basis. Reducing cholesterol reduces your risk of developing the clogged up arteries that cause heart attacks. Hence the claim that oats can be “good for your heart”.
Porridge is the most convenient way of eating oats and is officially good for you. (Of course if you are spending the rest of the day smoking on the sofa, eating doughnuts and crisps, which would certainly cancel out the health-giving effect of your breakfast porridge.)
Before the recent crackdown on health claims, they were bandied about fairly freely on oat products. You may have noticed recently the more carefully worded messages such as: "Each serving will have enough beta glucan to begin reducing cholesterol." Notice the word “begin”. Now look at the small print, (or the print that flashes before your eyes on the TV ads) which says something like: Each serving contains 33% of the 3g of oat beta glucan suggested per day to help lower cholesterol as part of a varied and balanced diet & healthy lifestyle.
The important thing to remember is that you need to eat at least 90g of whole oats per day to get a cholesterol lowering amount of beta glucans.
Peering critically at packets, as I do, I can’t help thinking that the person who suggested putting oats in one-serving packets and branding them as simple and microwaveable should have had a massive bonus from their employer. It is a brilliant way of charging a lot more for oats. But aren’t all oats simple and microwavable? These measured portions are, for beginners, an easy way of making porridge - but, I would have thought, making porridge in a microwave is an easy skill that could be managed by a seven year old. And remember – those little packets only give you a third of the recommended daily intake of oats.
The cost of these neatly packaged oats is around £5.50 a kilo. Supermarket “value” brands of porridge oats, sold in one-kilogram plastic bags, can be had for about 80p a kilo. They are just as good as the oats you can buy in a box, or a box with lots of little packets.
There are other branded versions of porridge around, such as individual microwaveable pots. Again if you want to check the serving size and the price per kilo, you need to peer closely at the small print. Or visit an online shopping site so that you can read the nutritional content of foods in bigger print on their websites. One individual pot I looked at contains 60g of product, 30g of which is oats. So again, you’d have to eat 3 of these (at about £1 each) to get your daily quota of oat beta glucan.
Dried fruit is a good way of sweetening porridge without using refined sugar and it is cheaper to add your own than to buy it ready mixed.
So if you want to get a cholesterol lowering benefit from your morning porridge, have a big bowl and have it most mornings. And if you’re watching your pennies – and who isn’t – go for the ones in plastic bags.