Get popping with oats

Tara McHugh, director of the Western Regional Research Center in Albany, California, and her team in the Healthy Processed Foods Research Unit are experts at solving food-manufacturing problems by using cutting-edge processing technologies. They have helped numerous small businesses, such as Pop Oats, turn their ideas into products for the consumer.

Gone are the days when oats were viewed only as a breakfast staple. At least, that’s what Pop Oats co-founders Rodger Morris and Marc Pfeiffer are hoping. The new company is using a patent-pending method, developed in collaboration with the ARS, to perfect a snack made of whole oat groats—the hulled kernels of the grain that are primarily used for oatmeal. Not only is the snack healthful, but it also delivers a savory taste of flavors such as barbecue, white cheddar, sea salt, caramel, and chili lime.

“The idea was born out of my desire to eat better,” Morris said. “I’ve always loved the health benefits of oats and always found the options limited. The thought was could we ultimately create something that would have the attractiveness and benefits of oats but give it a more ready-to-eat convenience.”

The result is a snack that has the consistency of popcorn, corn nuts and sunflower seeds, Morris said. It’s like a hybrid of these three snacks, but it’s simply air-popped, organic, whole oat kernels that have a crunch most consistent with corn nuts and a little softness of popcorn.

“Together, we are developing a 100% oat snack that is crunchy, obviously healthy, and has all the fiber and proteins in oats. It’s an excellent, novel product that’s kind of like eating sunflower seeds,” said McHugh. “The snacks are very crispy and flavorful on their own. They can also be eaten as toppings on foods such as yogurt.”

“We jokingly say, oats are mired in the breakfast world,” Morris said. “We are trying to launch them into the snack universe so they become an any-time-of-the-day snack. The goal is to make Pop Oats the food people reach for when they want an afternoon snack, but they don’t want to spoil their appetite.”

McHugh’s team worked with Pop Oats to refine the existing production process for texture, flavor and color consistency. The next step was to enhance the product’s flavorings and clustering to maximize its desirability. They are now scaling up the process for commercial production, McHugh said.

“We could not have done this amount of work in our kitchen,” Morris said. “Effectively, they [McHugh and her team] gave us kind of a petri dish to figure out whether we could make this work or not, and we were fortunate enough to be able to do it.”