Oat beta glucan (also spelled as oat β‑glucan) has been shown to reduce cholesterol[i]. Health claims for this natural, soluble fiber have been approved in numerous countries and regions around the world, including Europe[ii], the United States[iii], Canada[iv], Malaysia[v], as well as Australia and New Zealand[vi].
Head of R&D at Fazer Mills, Markku Mikola (Ph.D. Food Science) has worked with oats for over 30 years, first as a researcher and later in oat commercialization. Mikola explains how oat beta glucan became such a hot topic, key health benefits of oat beta glucan – and busts a few myths.
“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the hype around oat β‑glucan health benefits began, but in 1987 a medical journalist named Robert Kowalski wrote a best-selling book called the 8-Week Cholesterol Cure, in which he made several health claims about oats. This sparked a great deal of interest in researchers and health-minded consumers alike,” Mikola describes.
“Fast forward ten years and in 1997, the US Food and Drug Administration FDA approved the first health claims relating to oats,” he adds.
The FDA stipulated that in the US companies could claim that eating foods made from rolled oats, oat bran, and oat flour may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease[vii] – providing that the oats contain enough soluble fiber, and they are consumed as a part of a low-fat diet.
“In Europe, health claims relating to oat β‑glucan first gained official status in 2009, when the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA, stated that regular consumption of this soluble fiber contributes to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels,” Mikola remarks.
“A year later, in 2010, the EFSA acknowledged that consuming 3 grams of oat β‑glucan daily reduces the cholesterol level in the blood,” Mikola continues.
At the same time, the EFSA also approved another health claim about oat beta glucan: that it slows down the rise of the blood sugar level after a meal[viii].
“The precise EFSA health claim is that the consumption of β‑glucan from oats as part of a meal contributes to the reduction of the blood glucose rise after that meal – if the food contains at least 4 grams of β‑glucan from oats for each 30 grams of available carbohydrates,” Mikola recites.
How does oat beta glucan reduce cholesterol?
All in all, the EFSA has approved four health claims relating to oats or oat beta glucan[ix]. Mikola reminds that health claims on food products are an effective way to communicate the link between a food and a specific health benefit and thus help consumers choose healthy diets.
“High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart diseases, so adding oat β‑glucan to your diet is certainly something I would advise doing,” Mikola affirms.
But how exactly does oat beta glucan help reduce cholesterol? Mikola underlines that while the precise mechanism is unknown, the widely accepted explanation among researchers is fairly simple:
When digested, oat beta glucan dissolves and creates a highly viscous, gum-like gel in the gut. The gel reduces the absorption of cholesterol-rich bile acids and dietary cholesterol, excreting them in the feces. This in turn promotes the production of new bile acid, which reduces the cholesterol in the blood[x].
“To put it a bit crudely in layman’s terms, when you consume enough oat β‑glucan, you eventually flush a portion of your cholesterol down the sewer,” he clarifies.
Busting oat beta glucan myths
There are some fairly common misconceptions about oat beta glucan’s health benefits. Mikola regularly runs in to them in his work.
“Some people mistakenly think that oat β‑glucan has an immunomodulating impact; meaning that it could stimulate the immune system and help the body fight cancer, infection, or other diseases. This has not been scientifically proven,” he emphasizes.
“The misconception is probably due to the fact that there is a different kind of β‑glucan found in yeast, and some studies have indicated that the β‑glucan in yeast might have an immunomodulating effect. But it is not the same type of β‑glucan that is found in oats, and they should not be confused with each other,” Mikola says.
There have also been studies linking oat beta glucan to type 2 diabetes prevention.
“There is some scientific evidence to back this claim. Before I moved from full-time research to commercial R&D, I also coauthored an article relating to this subject. But as of now, the research findings are not strong enough. The EFSA and the FDA have not made any health claims regarding diabetes prevention and oat β‑glucan,” Mikola points out.
Finally, sometimes people assume that all oat products include beta glucan. This is not true.
“β‑glucans are viscous polysaccharides, a form of soluble dietary fiber. In oats, β‑glucan is mainly found in the outer layer of the kernel, the bran layer,” Mikola explains.
“All oat products are not equal in their β‑glucan content. When a Fazer Mills’ customer wishes to create a product that is rich in oat β‑glucan and provides positive health effects, we offer expert help in how to ensure the desired oat β‑glucan content in the end product,” Mikola concludes.
Markku Mikola (Ph.D. Food Science), Head of R&D at Fazer Mills, has worked with oats for over 30 years, first as a researcher and later in oat commercialization. His publications cover several peer reviewed articles in leading scientific magazines of the field: a list of selected publications by Markku Mikola related to oat and beta glucan
Read more about Fazer Aurora Oat Beta Glucan
Fazer Mills has explained the EFSA health claims for oat beta glucan
[i] Othman RA, Moghadasian MH, Jones PJ. Cholesterol-lowering effects of oat β-glucan. Nutr Rev. 2011 Jun;69(6):299-309. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00401.x. PMID: 21631511.
[iii] US Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration. Food Labeling:Health claims; Oats and Coronary Heart Disease—final rule. Fed Regist. 1997;62:3584-3601.
[v] Malaysia MoH. Malaysian dietary guidelines—Key Message 14—make effective use of nutrition information on food labels (Appendix 4). 2010.
[vi] Food Standards Australia and New Zealand. Standard 1.2.7: Nutrition, health and related claims. Food Standards Gazette. 2013;80.
[x] Main L. Oats and Oat Products in Cholesterol Lowering Diets. Complete Nutrition. Dec/Jan 2015;15 (6):63-65.