Money, especially money withheld from a boss or associate.

- american underworld dictionary - 1950
From the 1755 edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary :

OATS n. s. [aten, Saxon.] A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

It is of the grass leaved tribe; the flowers have no petals, and are disposed in a loose panicle : the grain is eatable. The meal makes tolerable good bread.
--- Miller
The oats have eaten the horses.
--- Shakespeare
It is bare mechanism, no otherwise produced than the turning of a wild oatbeard, by the insinuation of the particles of moisture.
--- Locke.
For your lean cattle, fodder them with barley straw first, and the oat straw last.
Mortimer's Husbandry.
His horse's allowance of oats and beans, was greater than the journey required.
--- Swift

Oats are a cereal grain (Avena Gramineae, to be specific) domesticated since prehistoric times. Though the ancient Greeks and Romans apparently viewed this grass as a weed, oats were a staple food source in Scotland and other parts of Europe until the 19th century. Oats are a linguistic oddity: they are the only grain commonly referred to in English in a collective plural. (We don't say rices or wheats, do we?)

Oats have a pleasant nutty flavour and are rich in soluble fibre, giving them cholesterol-fighting properties. Because they maintain their bran and germ during processing, they are more nutritious than many other processed grains.

Many adults loathe oats because of their association with that dreaded childhood food, oatmeal porridge; I too was forced to eat gloppy grey porridge as a child, the horror only mitigated by the copious amounts of brown sugar I was allowed to sprinkle on top. But oats are a versatile and nutritious food that, now we're adults, we can learn to love again. Or something like that.

Oats grow best in cool, moist climates, but can adapt to very poor soils where other grains cannot grow. Whole oats are long thin grains resembling millet which are used as animal fodder; humans don't generally consume oats until they have been cleaned, toasted, and hulled, at which time they are known as groats. Whole oat groats can be cooked like rice and served as a side dish. Steel-cut oats or scotch oats are groats that have been cut into two or three pieces; they have a nice chewy texture and are delicious toasted in butter before being boiled, but they take quite a long time to cook.

More commonly, though, the groats are flattened by a process which involves steaming and rolling them between huge rollers; this produces flat flakes which are often called old-fashioned or rolled oats. These can be cooked in water - one part oats to two or three parts liquid, brought to the boil and then simmered for 10 to 20 minutes. This is the grey glop of my childhood. Quick-cooking oats are just rolled oats that are cut thinner to shorten cooking time; they'll achieve glop consistency in a mere three to five minutes. Instant oats are partially cooked and then dried and rolled thin; this is the stuff that comes in little packages in the breakfast cereal section, the flavour "enhanced" with the addition of lots of sugar and salt and chemical flavour enhancers. It cooks just by pouring boiling water over.

Oat bran may be present in steel-cut or rolled oats, but can also be bought as a separate product; it's higher in fibre than wheat bran. Oat flour contains no gluten and so isn't often used to make bread; it is sometimes used in addition to wheat flour in baked goods, producing a dense product.
The Visual Food Encyclopedia

For many years, oats have been the subject of much controversy in the community of celiac disease sufferers. The majority of celiacs know from bitter experience or doctor's orders that they cannot eat them. (Raise your hand if you learned this the hard way, and yes, my hand is up). But there are always a few people who swear that they have eaten oatmeal without repercussions.

So what's the story?

As anthropod notes, oat flour does not contain gluten, so theoretically oats should be safe for celiacs to eat. Numerous studies have borne this out - in fact, at least one study concluded that a regular diet of uncontaminated oats can actually help the damaged villi in a celiac sufferer's intestine. And yet, when you are first diagnosed with celiac disease, one of the first things you are told is to never eat anything made from the killer quartet of wheat, barley, rye, and oats. There are two main reasons for this.

First, the faces of celiac disease are legion, and no two celiacs display the same symptoms or sensitivity levels. There is no such thing as a standard celiac reaction. Oats do contain proteins that are very similar to gluten, and some celiacs have been found to be sensitive to them. Furthermore, undiagnosed CD can lead to a wide variety of problems that require highly restricted diets. For many celiacs, gluten intolerance is only the tip of the iceberg. If you think not being able to eat wheat, barley, rye and oats is bad, try throwing in lactose intolerance and a corn or soy allergy.

The second reason is more insidious. You'll notice that way up in Paragraph 3 I used the phrase "regular diet of uncontaminated oats". Unfortunately, uncontaminated oats are nearly impossible to find.

According to Trevor Pizzey, Executive Vice President - Operations for Can-Oat Milling,

"Cross contamination of grains in North America is almost a given.... There are a number of points of contamination during the production and manufacturing processes." (Pizzey points out that oats are commonly grown on fields that previously grew wheat, barley or rye, and "volunteer grain" from those crops often sneaks into the oats. The oats are then moved to grain handling facilities that store multiple grains.) "Usually the systems are not cleaned out between receipts or shipments, so residues of one grain are often in equipment when the next batch of grain passes through, resulting in contamination.... Oat flour is more likely to be contaminated with wheat and barley than are oat flakes, although most oat flakes do have a trace of wheat and barley present in them as well."1

I know, small organic farms are the answer to everything, right? Well, dealing with small growers is always good, but our Mr. Pizzey has bad news for those who think organic is the answer:

"We have previously been a certified organic oat processing facility, and have dealt with significant volumes of organic oats. In general terms, we saw both wheat and barley levels to be higher in organic oats than in conventional products."1

(On a side note, I have to point out that, much as I admire the organic ideal, organic has become a marketing buzzword that promises everything and means nothing. If you don't believe me, go down to your local Whole Foods HyperGigaSuperMarket and look at all the certified organic, zero-benefit junk food they stock. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.)

If there was any doubt left regarding oat contamination, the NEJM recently published the results of a study in which ELISA tests were conducted on oats from three major brands (Quaker, Country Choice and McCann's) and found wheat contamination at levels that could be unsafe for celiacs in all of them. The levels varied from container to container, and some containers would have been safe for consumption. But there was no one brand that was completely uncontaminated.2

The consensus in the celiac community is oats are theoretically safe for most celiacs, but the oatmeal in the stores is almost guaranteed to make you sick. So if you have CD and want oats you have three choices: contact small, individual producers and grill them about their milling process and decontamination procedures, grow your own oats, or get used to grits for breakfast. Me, I like the grits, but I still miss oatmeal cookies.

1: Pizzey, Trevor. Correspondence with (October 30, 1998 and November 2, 1998)

2: Thompson T. NEJM. 2004;351:2021-2022 (Nov. 4, 2004, Number 19)
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