Instant Oatmeal, Steel-Cut Oats, and Everything In Between

Oats are a hardy grain that can withstand the poor soil conditions in which many other crops cannot thrive.  Scottish settlers brought oats to North America early in the 17th century.  Like other food-like products in the supermarket, it’s not so easy to tell the difference between the various kinds of oatmeal.  So here is a short lesson designed to help you understand. 

One of the reasons that Americans eat so much oatmeal is that it is “good for us.”  This conclusion is based on several studies published in the late 1980s which showed that oatmeal, rich in soluble fiber, lowers levels of small, dense LDL cholesterol.  For a short time, breakfast cereal and baked goods manufacturers changed thousands of product packages to advertise the addition of oat bran to the ingredient list. 

A second surge in the popularity of oatmeal came in the late 1990’s with an endorsement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that allowed companies to promote the benefits of whole grains, including oats, in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.  Quaker Oats ran with that.  And here is what they came up with. 

Instant oatmeal has already been cooked, and a portion of the fiber stripped out, so it’s ready to eat with the simple addition of hot water.  Besides regular flavor, instant oatmeal comes in Raisins and Spice, Maple and Brown Sugar, Cinnamon and Spice, Apples and Cinnamon Peaches and Cream, Cinnamon Roll, Raisin Date & Walnut, Honey Nut, Apple Crisp, Banana Bread, Strawberries and Cream, Blueberries and Cream, Bananas and Cream, and French Toast.  The “weight control” version comes in  Banana Bread, Maple and Brown Sugar, and Cinnamon flavors.  There is a “lower sugar” (what can I say?!) as well as a “high fiber” version.  What they all have in common is large and excessive amounts of sugar.

A few words on the “weight control” Quaker Oatmeal.  The ingredient list contained quite a few items that I do not stock in my kitchen, such as acesulfame potassium and whey protein isolate, but two ingredients in particular caught my eye.  These were sucralose and polydextrose.  Sucralose is the chlorine-containing artificial sweetener, Splenda.  I don’t know if it’s safe to eat.  I don’t know if there is some threshold amount below which it is safe to eat.  I don’t know if perhaps it’s safe to eat beyond a certain age, but not before.  In general, I am hesitant to use artificial sweeteners.  I think they confuse our metabolism and its exquisitely sensitive signaling systems. 

Polydextrose is a synthetic fiber manufactured by Danisco.  The FDA categorizes polydextrose not as dietary fiber but as “functional fiber,” and permits manufacturers to use it to boost fiber counts on nutrition labels.  It is interesting to note that Canada’s equivalent agency, with tighter classification regulations, does not permit polydextrose to be labeled as edible fiber.  In addition, although it increases gastrointestinal transit like dietary fiber, there is no evidence, to date, demonstrating that polydextrose has equivalent cardiovascular benefits. 

Next in line comes quick oats.  Quick oatmeal has had less fiber stripped out than the instant variety, so whereas it does require cooking, it is ready much sooner than if you had chosen to prepare rolled or steel-cut oats.

Rolled oats are made from whole oats that have been flaked, steamed, rolled, re-steamed, and toasted.  This degree of processing causes them to lose some, but not all, of their original taste and texture.  I make oatmeal and granola with rolled oats, but I also like to sprinkle rolled oats on yogurt.  The processing leaves them soft enough to eat dry, without additional cooking.

The least processed oatmeal product is steel-cut oats.  One cup of steel-cut oatmeal contains more fiber than a bran muffin.  Steel-cut oats are hulled, but the hulling process does not strip away the bran and germ, so they remain a concentrated source of fiber and nutrients.  Because steel-cut oats have the highest proportion of complex carbohydrate, they are absorbed much more slowly than all other kinds of oatmeal.  The more slowly a food is absorbed, the less insulin is required to take it to the cells.  The less insulin you use, the better.

The relative lack of processing makes steel-cut oats a good deal chewier and nuttier than instant oats.  But it also means that they take longer to cook and soften than instant or rolled oats.  Luckily, there is a way around this.  Like with many “real” foods, it takes more planning to eat steel-cut oats, but it does not take more time. 

Here’s how to make steel-cut oats in two minutes:  The night before you intend to eat steel-cut oats for breakfast, measure ½ cup serving of oats per person into a large glass bowl.  Then add 1 c. water for each ½ c. oats.  So if you are preparing for 3 people, that means 1 ½ c. oats, and 3 c. water.  I like to add 1 tablespoon of raisins per person also.  Then add either ¼ tsp vinegar or 1 tablespoon of plain yogurt to the oat/water mixture.  Now leave it on the counter overnight.  In the morning it will be ready to eat in 2 minutes.  Heat it on the stove or in a microwave, whichever you prefer.  Once it’s warm, you can add butter, milk, nut butter, and/or the sweetener of your choice.  It really is delicious, and extremely filling, too.

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