Whole grain oats are oats that are intact, meaning they have not been ground down or refined to remove two-thirds of each seed. Steel cut, rolled oats and grains that are still in 'seed' form are all whole grain oats, meaning the bran, endosperm and germ of each oat is still intact. Refined oats generally only feature the endosperm, which does not typically feature as many nutritional benefits as the other two parts. Barley, rye and oatmeal all qualify as whole grain oats and may be used in a wide array of recipes and cooking techniques.
The endosperms in whole grain oats are the main source of carbohydrates in each seed. Eaten together with the germ and bran, the endosperm provides fast energy that is easily digested. The bran is the nutty, fibrous outer layer of each oat seed. It is rich in protein, fiber, B complex vitamins and a myriad of nutrients. The germ, sometimes called wheat germ when sold on its own, contains vitamin E, which is important for skin, hair and immune system health. Both the germ and the bran contain phytonutrients, which can help keep many systems in the body healthy.
The germ is the smallest part of an oat seed, while the endosperm is the largest portion. When an oat begins to grow, it sprouts in the area of the germ and feeds on the endosperm until it is strong enough to break through the bran. The nutrients in whole grain oats are self-contained and well-balanced with each seed generally containing the perfect nutrition for an oat plant to sprout and thrive. Humans and animals consuming whole grain oats reap the benefits of that perfect nutrition. Those that choose whole grain over refined varieties often have better digestion, improved immune health, and more energy.
Barley, rye and oatmeal are all part of the oat family and can typically be incorporated into the same kinds of recipes. Rye has a sharper, more distinct flavor than the other two oats, while barley is very nutty. Oatmeal generally has a subtle, floury flavor that many find versatile when cooking and baking. All of these whole grain oats generally combine well with both sweet and savory flavors, but oatmeal takes on the flavors of other ingredients, hiding its own flavor under stronger-tasting fruits and spices.
Those looking to add more whole grain to their diet generally need only to modify a few recipes. Stirring oats into hot cereals and baking recipes not only adds nutrition, but may also add flavor. Sprinkling oats into ice cream, smoothies, parfaits and yogurt creates a calcium-rich, protein-fortified snack. Others may enjoy combining whole grain oats with honey, nuts and dried fruit to create homemade granola mixes. Baking these mixes typically makes the granola easily transportable.