Demand for oat products in China is driving new Australian research into the functional properties of the grain, with the potential to develop new products and markets and increase returns to growers.
The Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre (AEGIC) has established a dedicated oats laboratory at its offices in Perth, Western Australia, as part of a project jointly funded by the GRDC.
Top priorities for product development include oat noodles, oat rice and oat milk.
Current research is evaluating eight milling oat varieties: (Williams (PBR), Mitika (PBR), Bannister (PBR), Yallara (PBR), Kowari, Durack (PBR), Dunnart (PBR) and Wombat); produced in two different growing seasons; at two sites in South Australia and two in WA.
Six Chinese oat varieties are also part of the product development trials.
Preliminary findings from the research were presented at 2019 GRDC Research Updates in Perth in February, reporting on the success of efforts to create high-quality dried noodles with an oat flour ratio greater than 50 per cent.
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Lead research scientist Dr Sabori Mitra told the Updates that the lack of gluten in oats limited their use in wheat-based products such as noodles, so AEGIC's innovation to achieve high-percentage oat flour was an excellent result.
"These noodles have an excellent shelf life, they look good, they're healthy and, most importantly, they taste delicious," she says.
The project had also returned encouraging results in processing oat 'rice'.
"Oat rice is created through a special process to remove to the outer bran layer of oat grains, while achieving a shelf-stable and nutritious product," Dr Mitra says.
Known as 'pearling', this process reduces cooking time, increases brightness, improves eating quality and maintains beta-glucan content.
The resulting product can be cooked and eaten in a similar way to that of traditional rice.
These noodles have an excellent shelf life, they look good, they're healthy and, most importantly, they taste delicious
Oat consumption skyrocketing
AEGIC oat program manager Mark Tucek says oat consumption in China has increased dramatically since the mid-2000s.
"In 2007, China imported about 20,000 tonnes of Australian oats," he says.
"In 2016-17, it was importing more than 200,000 tonnes and the trend is continuing to rise.
"Consumers are increasingly interested in supplementing their diets with healthier options, such as oats, which are loaded with beta-glucan and other high-value nutrients."
Mr Tucek says the joint research project began in 2016, when there was a realisation of a lack of understanding about the products the Chinese market wanted.
"We didn't understand the technical requirements to make the different products, or how the different varieties stacked up," he says.
Consumers are increasingly interested in supplementing their diets with healthier options, such as oats, which are loaded with beta-glucan and other high-value nutrients.
The oat laboratory includes heat treatment equipment, which denatures oat enzyme, preventing the oil in grain from going rancid, as well as de-hulling, pearling and noodle sheeting equipment.
"This is a beginning step for oats," Mr Tucek says.
"At this point, we don't have the same kind of sophisticated end-use requirements for oats that we do for wheat.
"Oats are essentially where wheat was 40 years ago, when we didn't have segregation or varieties grown for different purposes.
"But in developing those end-use products and markets, we think there is significant additional value that can be created for growers."
High-quality milling oats can attract a premium of around $20 per tonne.
Mr Tucek says if Australia captures 50 per cent of the expected future market growth, this could generate an extra $20 million each year for the Australian oats industry*.
Results of stage one of this project are expected to be finalised before the end of the year.
In the next stage, AEGIC will develop a wider variety of innovative oat foods. It will also help to provide pathways to market for commercial products.
The current project is a collaboration between Shaanxi Normal University (Xi'an, China), the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) National Oat Breeding Program.
*Estimation assumes a milling oats price of $250/tonne.
More information: Dr Sabori Mitra, (08) 6168 9948, firstname.lastname@example.org