Oat bran--plain and unglamorous as an old housecoat--suddenly has the allure of a designer original in supermarkets around the country.
There has been a large increase in oat bran sales, said Kenneth Treat, regional grocery manager for Safeway in the Northwest. Demand at one point was so great that Safeway could not keep shelves stocked with the leading brand, Quaker, according to Treat.
A Quaker spokesman in Chicago said oat bran sales have doubled nationwide during the past year and the company is stepping up production capacity so it can fill all the orders.
And a Northwest company, Moore's Flour Mills of Oregon--a relative newcomer to the oat bran business--says sales are now many times what they were six months ago.
"We used to order 50,000-pound truckloads of oat products, including maybe 2,000 pounds of oat bran," said company owner Bob Moore. (The company mills other grains, but only packages and distributes oat bran.) "We now order a full truckload of oat bran alone, about once a month."
Why the run on oat bran? The answer is health--specifically heart health. Several studies during the past year have indicated that eating oat bran may help reduce blood cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart attack. The studies support earlier research done during the past two decades.
Experts point out that oat bran is just one of many foods containing the water-soluble fiber that is believed to help lower cholesterol. Some of the others are barley, beans and other legumes, whole oats, apples, oranges and grapefruit. But because oat bran is so easily available, it has been used in many studies with promising results.
Multitude of Products
The new interest in oats is generating a pantryful of oat bran cereals and other oat products.
The cereal section in one Seattle supermarket carries 15 cold and hot cereals with oat bran or whole oats as a major ingredient--not counting different flavor varieties. Last year, General Mills came out with Total Oatmeal, a hot cereal, and Quaker introduced Quaker Oat Squares, a whole-oats cold cereal. There are oat bran cereals in the form of flakes and O's, some with added fruit, and whole-oat instant hot cereals jazzed up with cinnamon and other flavors. Health Valley of California has about half a dozen oat-based cereals on the market.
What's more, products such as Health Valley's, which once were hard to find outside of health food stores, are showing up in more and more supermarkets.
The oats onslaught already has generated controversy over the health claims in some oat bran advertising. A Washington-based consumer group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, complained that a Quaker Oats ad gave too much credit to oats--as opposed to a low-cholesterol diet--in discussing a study in which patients' blood cholesterol levels were lowered. The company said the ad mentioned the low-cholesterol diet and was not misleading.
Product's Value Questioned
Some medical experts have questioned the health value of at least one oat-based product, Kellogg's Cracklin' Oat Bran, a crunchy cold cereal. One of those is Alice Cadwallader, a dietitian with Seattle's Northwest Lipid Research Center, whose research includes the effect of diet on blood-vessel health.
The trouble with Cracklin' Oat Bran, said Cadwallader, is that it is held together with coconut oil, a highly saturated oil believed to contribute to the clogging of blood vessels and possible heart attacks--the very problem that oat bran is supposed to help prevent. Cadwallader said Cracklin' Oat Bran's saturated fat would be enough to offset the oat bran's benefits.
Kellogg representative Nancy Roach responded: "We feel that coconut oil plays too large a role in the flavor and texture of the product (for us) to alter the product." Further, she said the amount of saturated fat contributed by Cracklin' Oat Bran would be "fairly minimal" in a diet generally low in saturated fat.
Oat bran is the outer shell of the oat grain. When sold plain, and not part of another product, it may be called either oat bran or oat bran hot cereal; they're the same thing.
Can Be Cooked
Unlike wheat bran, which is not water soluble, oat bran can be cooked at home into a smooth-textured hot cereal. You can also add it to muffins, pancakes, waffles, cookies and other foods. However it is used, it contributes water-soluble fiber to the diet.
Scientists aren't sure exactly how that fiber works to lower cholesterol, but it appears to bind to cholesterol in the intestinal tract and allow it to pass harmlessly from the body. Some studies indicate that daily consumption of 1 to 1 1/2 cups of oat bran--equal to a bowl of oat bran cereal and about five oat bran muffins--can reduce blood cholesterol by 13% to 19% in a year.