Like all the best fairy tales, the story of the humble oat is one of goodness overcoming a plain appearance. The domesticated oat or avena sativa was a late arrival into central Europe, first grown around 1000 BC. It was dismissed as a weed variation of primary cereals such as wheat and barley and the Greeks and Romans fed it only to their animals. But as crop cultivation spread north to more temperate regions, the oat’s capacity to flourish in cooler, wetter conditions turned it into a star. In Wales, and most famously Scotland, where the climate could drown or freeze the most hardy of grains, oats became – and remain – a national food staple, used in porridge and oatcakes.
Nutritionally, oats are packed with protein, fibre and carbohydrate, making them the hero of many healthy eating plans, as well as being clinically proven to lower cholesterol, but their qualities don’t end there. Chock full of saponins and polysaccharides, when used in soaps and moisturisers oats work to cleanse and hydrate the skin and protect it against irritants. Rich in magnesium, zinc, iron and potassium, oats are also a fantastic addition to shampoo, strengthening the hair and maintaining healthy growth
The simplest ingredients are often the most maligned and despite its many benefits, the oat has suffered a fair amount of scorn over the years. The idiom “to sow one’s wild oats” was originally a reference to useless, unprofitable activities – first found in the writings of the Roman Republic-era writer Plautus – before the meaning morphed into today’s more colloquial usage.
Several centuries later, in his 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson used it to illustrate the snobbish division between the Scots and the English, defining the oat as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."
Today, the English are rather literally eating Johnson’s words, with oats having something of a renaissance both as part of the healthy eating movement, and as a beauty ingredient, with cosmetic products making the most of their rich nutrient content to cleanse, rejuvenate, soothe and soften both the skin and hair.
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