Oatmeal is hot, both literally and figuratively.
Starbucks and McDonald's hawk oatmeal spiked with fruit or nuts in the early-morning hours. Datz Deli and Oxford Exchange in Tampa have join the breakfast revolution by serving steel-cut oatmeal to kick-start the day. IHOP and Chick-fil-A added oatmeal to their breakfast menus in the last year.
Oatmeal is now on 15 percent more restaurant menus than it was in 2008, according to Datassential, a market research firm that tracks dining trends.
And we don't know if this will hurt or help oatmeal's trajectory, but actor Anne Hathaway credits oatmeal for her sickly, skeletal look in the movie-musical Les Misérables. She says she lost 25 pounds by eating "two thin squares of dried oatmeal paste a day." Not likely what nutritionists have in mind when they recommend oatmeal as part of a healthy diet.
Oatmeal — though maybe not the way Hathaway used it — has a host of nutritional benefits, among them the ability to reduce heart disease and keep cholesterol in check. Oatmeal is a complex carbohydrate so, unlike a piece of white bread toast or a glass of apple juice, its sugars are released more slowly into the bloodstream and keep you satisfied longer. Its fiber is also a boon to the system.
Yes, the hot cereal that Mom pushed on you before school is back with a vengeance, proving that she did know best. But now that you are doing the shopping, the choices are confusing. What's the difference between instant and old-fashioned? And what does "rolled" mean? Is steel-cut oatmeal in the can really better than the stuff in the round, cardboard container with that red-cheeked Quaker on the label? And what's the best way to add flavor without overloading on sugar and calories?
Some types of oatmeal are better for you than others. For instance, those microwaveable instant oatmeal packets get breakfast on the table quickly and are easy for desk-side dining at work, but they can be filled with sugar and sodium. And there are ways to sweeten the oats other than heaping on the brown sugar, long the go-to topper for hot cereal.
Types of oatmeal
The oatmeal that most Americans are accustomed to is rolled oats. These come from oat groats, which are what remains when the husk is removed from the whole grain. The groats are then steamed and rolled, which allows them to cook quicker. Common oatmeals on the market:
Instant: This variety of precooked and thinly rolled oat groats often comes in packets with lots of flavoring additives. Though the oatmeal cooks quickly in the microwave and is convenient, it has the least nutritional benefit because of added sugar and sodium. Some of the fiber content is lost in processing.
Quick-cooking: The oat groats are precooked (not as much as instant), dried and then rolled to give them their trademark flatness. It just takes a few minutes to cook them in hot water, and they tend to be mushy when done.
Old-fashioned: Use this variety, which is also called rolled oats, for cookies. These oat groats have been steamed and then rolled to flatten, but not as much as for quick-cooking oats. They take a bit longer to cook than the other rolled oats.
Steel-cut: For flavor and nutrition, this is the best choice. Steel-cut oatmeal is sometimes called Irish or Scotch oats. The groats are cut with steel blades, not rolled, and look more like chopped rice than flat ovals. They have more texture and some say even a nutty flavor. They need about 20 minutes' cooking time because they haven't been steamed to soften the pieces. Two popular brands are Anson Mills and McCann's, and they have about double the fiber as the different varieties of rolled oats.
As always, read labels at the store and compare one brand to another. Also, oats are gluten free, but some oatmeals can be contaminated with wheat, barley and/or rye during processing. Another thing to look for on labels.
Dressing them up
Now that we are all in agreement that oatmeal is good for the body, the question becomes how to make it taste like something. Though there may be some hearty souls who like oatmeal plain, to most of us, hot oats are little more than gruel. So we set about to doctor them with nuts, sweeteners and fruit, and in the process occasionally negate some of the benefits. It's kind of like that old saying about the baked potato . . . it's not the potato that's the problem, it's the butter and sour cream piled on top of it.
If you must add brown sugar, do it judiciously. A spoonful of yogurt, pumpkin or apple pie filling, peanut butter or pure maple syrup might be enough sweetness for you. A teaspoon of vanilla extract stirred in while the oatmeal is cooking adds flavor. Many people float milk (or half-and-half!) on their oatmeal to make it creamier. Consider almond or soy milk, which will both impart sweetness.
A cup of oatmeal cooked in water is about 150 calories. A tablespoon of peanut butter is about 100 and then a sliced banana can add another 75. Nuts will up the calorie count, too.
Take all this into account when you top your oatmeal. But keep this in mind, too: A bowl of oatmeal is likely to keep you happy and sassy until lunch; a chocolate chip muffin or a container of cranberry juice may not. Those extra calories from your healthy oatmeal toppings will also prevent you from coveting your co-worker's mid-morning doughnut.
There's good reason why oatmeal is so hot.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.