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Are “Overnight Oats” Traditional? Are They Safe?

Oats and Oatmeal Toppings

The idea has been around and popular for a couple years at least, but Pinterest has a way of reinventing things and “overnight oats” also hit the front page of in March, 2014.

If you haven’t seen the concept yet (what hole are you hiding in, seriously people!?), overnight oats is basically mixing raw rolled oatmeal with milk or yogurt plus some flavor (nuts, berries, vanilla, whatever you like), putting it the fridge overnight or longer, and eating it straight for the quickest breakfast ever.

The idea is awesome – whole grains, probiotics, and super convenience without the packaging.

But is this traditional “soaking grains?” And is it even safe?

Let’s review the technique of soaking grains as put forth by Nourishing Traditions and the Weston A. Price Foundation:
1. Whole grains include anti-nutrients called phytates which bind to minerals and pull them through and out of your body.
2. It’s best to (partially) neutralize those phytates, usually by soaking for at least 12 hours at room temperature, in a slightly acidic medium, with enough phytase (an enzyme) break down the phytates.

If this idea is foreign to you, you’ll find more than you ever wanted to know about soaking grains by digging into my research.

The Overnight Oats phenomenon is really a funny hybrid of soaking almost-properly (a good thing) and eating uncooked grains (a bad thing).

The soaking part is good – but it would be better on the countertop soaked in yogurt (some but not all “recipes” for overnight oats call for yogurt anyway). You’d also want to include a bit of whole wheat flour or buckwheat flour (gluten-free) because oats are low in phytase, the natural enzyme which breaks down the phytates (aka phytic acid) and that is activated by the acidic medium/room temperature soak.

BUT…I’m guessing that as good as reducing the phytic acid in the oats might be, which might work on the counter, we humans really do have digestive systems that demand cooked oats. We’re just not made to digest the tough fibers and bran in raw grains, which is why even soaking and dehydrating oats for cookies or granola bars is a risk, but better than totally raw. I think if someone ate this often, they’d start to feel heavy-gut if not worse over time. Or they might not notice pain – but they might not be digesting the oats well.

As with just about everything in the food world, I don’t think there’s a clear cut answer. Would I personally eat overnight oats on a regular basis? No. Would I soak them on the counter to try it out and see if I felt heavy in my gut or had iffy digestion? Maybe!

Related: Cooking Steel Cut Oats in the Instant Pot

Other bloggers have chimed in on this in the past as well:
* Kristen at Food Renegade thinks the phytic acid is sufficiently reduced if on the counter 24 hours.
* The Healthy Home Economist, who does lots of research but can be a “one-source wonder” at times, has emphatically stated in the past that all grains must be cooked to be safe to eat. I can’t find her reference right now, but there’s definitely something to be said about the “raw vs. cooked grains” debate.

I really think what it all comes down to, once you’re doing your best to follow the guidelines for reducing phytates, is whether it bothers your digestion or not. As for me, I generally make cooked soaked oatmeal, but we also enjoy soaked and dehydrated granola made with oats.

Food is an individual endeavor in the end!

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