Future superfood thrives in Finland’s cool fields

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Finland is the world’s fifth largest producer of oats with an annual output of almost 1.2 billion kilogrammes. Finland benefits from its cool climate and long growing season, thanks to which the quality of Finnish oats is excellent. I think we should use this valuable product more efficiently.

New possibilities of oat use through processes developed by VTT

VTT has studied oats for almost 40 years. In my doctoral dissertation, I developed processes for separating the different oats fractions – especially fibre and protein – by grinding and dry fractionation. At best, the fibre-rich fractions contained 56 per cent of soluble fibre, beta-glucan. The protein content of the protein-rich fractions could rise up to 73 per cent. These are the highest concentrations ever achieved without water and solvents in the extraction process. Producing concentrations as high as these may not be reasonable in industrial scale, since the yields may easily be too low. However levels such as 30 per cent beta-glucan and 50 per cent protein are more realistic.

These types of fractions would surely be in demand in the food industry. Accordingly, the VTT-developed separation process is expected to be in commercial use in the next few years.

Oats prevent cardiovascular diseases and increase Finland’s protein self-sufficiency

According to the health claims approved by the European Commission in 2013, the dietary fibre in oats, beta-glucan, helps with cholesterol management while also attenuating the glycaemic response.

Three grams of beta-glucan included in a daily diet may efficiently prevent cardiovascular diseases, which are still the most common cause of death in Finland.

Oats also have high protein levels (15–17 % in whole grains), and the proteins in oats are of very good quality. Compared with the other grains, oats have a higher content of an amino acid called lysine, which people on a vegetarian diet often do not get enough of. The protein-rich fraction separated by VTT’s process thus provides new alternatives to imported soy and animal proteins. Finland’s protein self-sufficiency has already dropped below 30 per cent, meaning that we are in dire need of domestic protein sources.

Consumers are not yet aware of the health benefits of oats

In the United States, Cheerios cereals, a brand of General Mills, has used children for promoting the health benefits of beta-glucan, which is an efficient way to communicate an important message. We should also be advertising the health benefits of beta-glucan in Finland, considering that a VTT consumer survey found that beta-glucan was much less well known than omega 3 fatty acids, for instance.

Beta-glucan has already been successfully highlighted in some bakery products such as VAASAN’s Kaurasydän bread and Fazer’s Oululaisen Kaurakorppu crispbread. Nevertheless, I challenge the domestic food industry to develop a more diverse range of products around oat fibre.

Oats could be combined with milk, meat or vegetable-protein sources to create new kinds of snacks. The VTT technology for producing beta-glucan-rich drinks may also revolutionise the soft drinks market, as young people in the future move from sugary soft drinks and energy drinks to fibre drinks that promote long-lasting energy and cardiovascular health.

Instead of attempting to add three grams of beta-glucan to every product, another approach might be to add oat-fibre in lower concentrations into several different product categories, including yoghurts, dressings and even minced meat. This would make it easier for the consumer to achieve – in addition to the three grams of beta-glucan – the recommended 25–30 gram daily dosage of dietary fibre. The effects would certainly be witnessed in public health in the long term.

Juhani Sibakov

Research Scientist

 

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