Oatmeal is hot, both literally and figuratively.
Starbucks and McDonald's hawk oatmeal spiked with fruit or nuts in the early morning. Datz Deli and Oxford Exchange in Tampa have joined the breakfast revolution by serving steel-cut oatmeal to kick-start the day. IHOP and Chick-fil-A added oatmeal to their breakfasts in the past year.
Oatmeal is now on 15 percent more restaurant menus than it was in 2008, according to Datassential, a 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 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.
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 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. They have about double the fiber as the different varieties of rolled oats.
Dressing them up
Now that we are in agreement that oatmeal is good for the body, the question becomes how to make it taste like something. If you must add brown sugar, do it judiciously. 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 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. 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.