Oatmeal is routinely promoted as a healthy meal, but can we always trust and rely on oatmeal as a smart food choice? As it turns out, given the many levels of modern food refining and processed food products, the answer is no.
As with most foods or meals today, what a bowl of oatmeal means to one person may be very different to what it means to another. There are many categories of oats, based on levels of processing, that will determine how they rate from a quality, health and nutrition perspective. Furthermore, what we add to our oatmeal will heavily influence whether we can consider it as a beneficial or problematic meal choice.
In this article, we will explore the different options when it comes to eating oatmeal and learn how to make the best choice for your health.
Oats are part of the grass family, whose botanical name is Avena sativa. They are considered a cereal grain, though botanically they are a seed. The oat grains have an outer covering, called a husk or hull. After the removal of the husk, the hulled oats are often called groats or kernels. The good news is that this process does not strip away the bran and germ of the oat, so the oats retain a concentrated source of their fiber and nutrients.
All oats begin as whole oat grains, however this is not typically how they are consumed by humans. Fully unadulterated oats, that still include their husks are often used as livestock feed. For human consumption, the oats commonly undergo various levels of processing. After de-hulling, the next processing step that all oats undergo for our use is kilning, which includes the processing of the oat grains with heat to remove moisture and stabilize the kernel. Given the oat’s fat content, among other things, this is considered a necessary step to prevent oxidation and rancidity of the grain for safe storage and consumption. The temperatures vary depending on the needs of the particular batch of oats, but usually go up to about 100 degrees Celsius (215 F) during this stage. Therefore, oats cannot be considered a raw food, even before any cooking that we may subject them to, as this stage destroys their enzymes and alters their nutritional characteristics.
Unlike similar cereal grains, oats are generally considered gluten free and thus a possible grain choice for those who wish to or need to avoid gluten. If you have Celiac disease, it is important that your oats are certified gluten-free, as some may be contaminated while being processed on gluten-grain machinery, and some cultivars of oats are not well tolerated by all Celiac conditions.
Health and Nutrition Benefits of Oats
A wholesome oat, even post initial processing, is still considered a rich source of nutrients. Like similar grains, and other seeds, oats are especially rich in minerals and most B vitamins. Unlike fat-rich seeds, oats and similar grains are predominantly a source of carbohydrate-rich calories. This includes healthy complex carbohydrates, commonly called starches, that break down into glucose and are the body’s primary and preferred fuel, or source of energy. They are also rich sources of protein, in the form of a healthy and high-quality plant protein, and also a healthy source plant fats. Oats actually contain one of the highest proportions of fat compared to other grains.
The specific macronutrient breakdown of oats is as follows:
- Carbohydrates ~ 68%
- Protein ~ 17%
- Fat ~ 15%
From a micronutrient perspective, aside from vitamin B12, oats contain good amounts of most of the B vitamins, including folate and biotin. The B vitamins directly support the health of our nervous system, including our mental health, and also support proper energy production. Oats are richest in the mineral manganese, but also contain good amounts of molybdenum, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, chromium, zinc, and iron. As a plant food, oats also contain various phytonutrients and antioxidants, which support overall health, as well as the healing and prevention of most acute and chronic lifestyle diseases. These properties also contribute to their natural anti-inflammatory qualities.
Oats have most commonly been associated with providing beneficial effects for cardiovascular health and proper cholesterol levels. This is mainly attributed to their special beta-glucan fiber. Multiple studies on oats have demonstrated their cholesterol-lowering ability. The absence of destructive properties, along with the presence of healthy fats, proteins, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants further contributes to optimal cardiovascular health that decreases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and similar conditions.
Oats have also been associated with positive blood sugar effects. They help to stabilize our blood sugar and decrease the risk of diabetes type 2. Their positive attributes and nutrient-dense characteristics also make oats a great choice for decreasing the risk of cancer, especially colon cancer, and being a smart choice for a cancer-healing diet. In addition, they help to positively support the immune system, digestive system, respiratory system, endocrine system, and our weight.
For more information about the specific benefits of oats, see oats on World’s Healthiest Foods.
Option 1: Steel Cut Oats
The most common, wholesome oat option are steel cut oats. These would be considered a whole, plant food, and the least processed version of how we can eat our oats, aside from the actual whole oat groats themselves. Steel cut oats are basically oats that have been sliced into smaller pieces, physically breaking down the original, whole kernel. Being highly wholesome, they take the longest to cook and provide a more dense and chewy type of oatmeal experience.
Scottish oats for example, are a healthy and wholesome type of steel cut oats. However as the popularity of steel cut oats increases, it is important to always choose the most original and pure option. This means preferably not any shortened cooking time steel cut oats, and definitely not any processed flavored options with additives.
Cooking directions: cook ½ cup of steel cut oats in 1 cup of water. Add the dry oats to boiling water and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until your desired consistency is reached. Note that you can decrease the cooking time of steel cut oats to as little as 5 minutes, while increasing their digestive benefits by simply soaking them overnight. I explain more about this and how to do it in this video: Fruit and Nut Soaked Steel Cut Oats.
Option 2: Rolled Oats
The next level down, and thus more processed, are rolled oats. These vary widely in their quality depending on how much processing they have undergone. Rolled oats are created by steaming hulled oat grains, the groats, and flattening them into rolled oat flakes. The addition of heat and moisture softens the groat. The heat applied for this stage of processing is usually in the 80 to 110 degrees Celsius range (176 - 230 F), upon which the groats can be flattened into flakes of various thickness levels.
The most wholesome rolled oats are often known as old-fashioned oats. They typically take 10 to 15 minutes to cook, and produce a softer chewy experience. Note that these too can be soaked overnight to reduce their cooking time and enhance digestibility.
The most processed rolled oats are quick oats. These are made from further steamed, fragmented, and flattened steel cut oats. They are usually cut finer and rolled thinner, which contributes to their greater water absorption and shorter cooking times. They can take anywhere from 1 minute to 5 minutes to cook, depending on how they were processed into a quick cooking oat. The shorter the cooking time, the more they were processed industrially.
Option 3: Instant Oats
The worst case scenario and something that teeters on the “unhealthy” side when it comes to oats, are instant oats. These are the most heavily processed oats that were made from rolled oats that were further steamed and flattened, and sometimes partially cooked. While they are still many times better than the heavily refined and processed grains found in boxed cereals, they are the least nutritionally wholesome as compared to the above options.
If you must choose this as your oat option at any given time, be sure to pick pure instant oats, not any ones that are additionally processed or include other ingredients. A leading example here comes from one of the leading cereal producers, Quaker, whose instant oatmeal products are a perfect illustration of how unhealthy an “oatmeal” product can be. Quaker is not the only culprit here though. Other companies that provide instant or processed oat and oatmeal products also rely on heavily degraded oats that come with added sugars, salt, and other undesirable or problematic ingredients.
Here are the ingredients to understand this for yourself. The first example is for the Quaker Regular Instant Oatmeal. The fortification with synthetic vitamins and minerals speaks to the nutritional inadequacy of this product. In addition, gone is the purity of the 1-ingredient wholesomeness of oats. Now, it is no longer only about what benefits this food could have, but also about what health-destroying properties it brings with it.
Quaker Regular Instant Oatmeal Canadian version via quaker.ca
Whole grain rolled oats (with oat bran), salt, guar gum, calcium carbonate (thickener). Vitamins and minerals: iron, niacinamide, thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), folic acid.
Quaker Regular Instant Oatmeal US version via quaker.com
Whole grain rolled oats, calcium carbonate, salt, guar gum, caramel color, reduced iron, vitamin A palmitate.
The second example gets even worse if you consider their flavored instant oatmeal choices. Here is one common flavor as an example:
Apple Cinnamon Instant Oatmeal Canadian version via quaker.ca
Whole grain rolled oats (with oat bran), sugar, dehydrated apple pieces (calcium stearate, sulphites), natural flavours, salt, cinnamon, guar gum, calcium carbonate (thickener).Vitamins and minerals: iron (coated with hydrogenated soybean oil), niacinamide, thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), folic acid.
Apple Cinnamon Instant Oatmeal US version via quaker.com
Whole grain rolled oats, sugar, dehydrated apples (treated with sodium sulfite to promote color retention), natural and artificial flavor, salt, cinnamon, calcium carbonate, citric acid, guar gum, malic acid, niacinamide, reduced iron, vitamin A palmitate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin, thiamine mononitrate, folic acid, caramel color.
When it comes to such products, they are not worthy of your time or money, as they do not have what it takes to create optimal health or positively contribute to your health. So don’t fall for any of the distracting marketing claims either, like an instant oatmeal that is higher in protein, or lower in sugar, or higher in fiber and the like. Real oatmeal, as shared in the first two options, has all of these characteristics naturally and comes without the problematic and unnatural additions. And if you’ve ever tried any of these instant oatmeals, you also know firsthand that a serving of such oatmeal is neither a satisfying nor filling meal, being truly no better than common empty-calorie and highly processed boxed cereals.
The Most Wholesome Oatmeal
A bowl of “oatmeal” will therefore vary not only in its nutritional quality, but also in its consistency, viscosity, and texture quite drastically depending on how the oats were processed during their various heat treatments, as well as physical breakdown into smaller grain pieces, groat fragments, or flakes. How much moisture remains in the oat and how the heat affected the starches and proteins will all dictate whether we have a more coarse or gelatinous and a more hardy or more insubstantial bowl of oatmeal. Ultimately the temperatures that the oats were processed at, the duration of the heat applied, and the physical form of the oats will all determine your oatmeal quality and experience.
Given that oats undergo so much heat processing, and nutrition loss occurs with each round, it is therefore in our best interest to choose the least processed and most wholesome options, whenever possible. All nutrients are heat-sensitive to varying degrees and we gain more nutritional integrity by staying as close to the source as possible. The easiest way to know if a food is a “whole-food” is to check the ingredients and see 1 ingredient: the food in question itself, as is. In the case of oatmeal, we simply want an ingredient list that says: oats.
Now depending on where you are on your healthy eating journey, it is okay to take as many steps as you need to arrive at the most ideal place. If you are used to old-fashioned oats, give steel cut oats a try sometimes. If you are used to quick cooking oats, try to get to a less processed rolled oat. If you are used to instant oats, transition to quick oats. And if you predominantly rely on boxed cereals, and are not ready for pure oatmeal, perhaps taking the pure instant oats step will be the best course of action for you. The most important thing is just to be aware of where you are, know that you always have choices to further optimize your meals, and commit to moving in the direction of the most wholesome foods possible.
Summary: Choose 1-ingredient oatmeal options that are most wholesome and least processed.
Are Organic Oats Worth It?
When it comes to quality and purity, it is always a smart choice to source organic food products. Although oats are not as heavily subjected to pesticides as some other foods, especially most fruits and vegetables, they still, like all foods, greatly benefit from organic farming, which does not use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Plus, it is a better choice for our environment, as it decreases the stress experienced by our already fragile ecosystems and water supplies.
The most recent report from the Pesticide Action Network identified 7 problematic pesticides that were found in oats, but at extremely low levels of occurrence. The 2016 USDA report that presents the Pesticide Data Program tested for 89 pesticides, metabolites, degradates, and/or isomers on oats and screened for 13 environmental contaminants. They found residues of one pesticide in oats, namely piperonyl butoxide. However, neither report took into consideration the application of the toxic glyphosate via Roundup, which oats can be routinely subjected to pre-harvest, like wheat. A December 2014 report by the World Health Organization analyzed the effects of glyphosate based on numerous studies and found that it has a strong capacity to cause oxidative stress and is a probable carcinogen. As of spring 2016, Quaker oats is facing a lawsuit for glyphosate found in their “100% natural” labelled oats. In other news on this matter, instant oats have tested to have some of the highest levels of glyphosate.
So is it worth to get organic oats? You bet! A company that I have relied on heavily over the years for a large portion of my grains and similar dry foods is Bob’s Red Mill. In a recent glyphosate article on their blog, they shared that while all of their organic grain products are guaranteed to be glyphosate-free, their regular wheat products are not. On the other hand, Grain Millers Inc. has made a commitment to stop accepting oats sprayed with Roundup. In either case, this is all just another reason why it is really important to go with organic options only.
Summary: Choose organic oatmeal options.
Healthy Oatmeal Additions
The final and most important thing that will dictate the quality of your oatmeal is what you eat it with or add to it. For optimal health, weight, energy, and longevity, it is obvious to avoid adding any animal products to your oatmeal, especially milk, yogurt or butter, as well as any isolated sweeteners like white sugar, brown sugar, or processed syrups. Choosing to eat a bowl of high-quality oats, like steel cut or old fashioned oats, with cow’s milk and/or sugar undermines the health benefits of oatmeal.
If you are used to such items in your oatmeal, you can wean yourself off of them by using non-dairy milks, like original, unsweetened almond or coconut milk, and sweeteners such as maple syrup or coconut sugar. If you choose to use any honey, make sure that it is raw, unpasteurized honey and don’t add it to boiling hot oatmeal. Let the oatmeal cool down somewhat to preserve the honey’s nutritional integrity. Ultimately, be sure to still use any of these sweeteners as sparingly as possible.
Ideally, a bowl of oatmeal is most wholesome, healthy and nutritionally well-rounded when it contains other whole, plant foods of the highest quality.
Optimally healthy oatmeal additions include:
- raw nuts (organic; almonds, cashews, walnuts, etc.)
- raw seeds (organic; sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.)
- raw nut or seed butters (organic; almond butter, peanut butter, etc.)
- homemade nut milk (from organic and raw, soaked almonds or cashews)
- homemade coconut milk (from fresh or dry coconut and water)
- fresh fruits (organic, any that you enjoy)
- dry fruits (unsulfured and organic, with no additives; raisins, dates, apricots, goji berries, etc.)
- dry coconut flakes (unsulfured and organic)
- raw cacao nibs (for a crunch of healthy chocolate)
- Raw cacao or carob powder (for a chocolatey oatmeal experience)
- spices (organic; cinnamon, pure vanilla, etc.)
Summary: Choose high-quality, wholesome plant foods as additions to your oatmeal for increased health and nutrition benefits.