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Sow Those Wild Oats: Oatmeal 101

By John DiGilio in Food on Oct 13, 2012 4:30PM

2012_10_DiGilio_Oats.jpg Though oatmeal can be a great way to start the day during any season, for many of us, our thoughts do not begin to turn to hot cereals until the thermometer begins to drop. Cold mornings call for toasty bellies and oatmeal is one of the best ways to get that stick-to-your-ribs warmth. You’ve probably heard time and time again that oatmeal is flavorful, heart-healthy, and nutritious. But how much do you really know about that golden goodness in your bowl?

No matter how you get your oatmeal, there are definite nutritional benefits to starting your day the hot cereal way. Oatmeal packs the one, two punch of protein and fiber. It is higher in both than most other cereals and you do not have to eat much to reap those benefits. Most commercial brands offer upwards of 4 grams of protein per single serving. The fiber in oatmeal is of both the soluble and insoluble varieties. Soluble fiber is important for weight control and maintenance as it helps slow your digestion and makes you feel full. The insoluble stuff is necessary for the smooth and proper removal of wastes from the body.

That oatmeal is good and good for you is almost without question. So what are the differences then in the many types and varieties that are available? Here is a little oatmeal 101 to help you make delicious and informed decisions:

Instant Versus Cooked

The most obvious difference between instant oatmeal and the kind that you have to slow cook on the stovetop is, of course, the time it takes to go from pantry to palate. With a pot of boiling water or a microwave, instant oats can be ready in a matter of minutes. Cooked oats can take the better part of half an hour until they are fit for eating. For most folks, the choice is usually one of taste and/or convenience. But there are some other considerations worth noting. Instant oatmeal tends to be higher in sugar, sodium, and additives. Cooked oats, though they require more work, tend to be higher in fiber and nutrients. But let’s face it. Sometimes you are just in a rush. Perhaps the most popular of the instant brands is, of course, Quaker.

Rolled Versus Steel Cut

Whether you prefer your oats rolled or steel cut is merely a matter of taste. Steel cut are as close to eating the unadulterated oat as you can get. The harvested plants are simply cut into bits the size of rice grains. Hence the longer cooking time and the nutty, chewy taste and texture. A lot has been written about steel cut oats in the press and, despite a certain masculine appeal, claims that they are better for you than their rolled cousins are just not true. Rolled oats are literally cut and then rolled flat. This cuts down on the cooking time and provides for a smoother, creamier texture on the tongue. Popular steel cut brands include McCann’s and Bob’s Red Mill.

Flavored Versus Plain

Here again, this is essentially a matter of taste. Most instant oats come in a variety of flavors. From fruit and cream blends to nuts, syrups, and sugars, there is something for everyone who wants more than just a mouthful of warm grain. Of course, there are also rolled and steel cut brands that come perfectly plain. Many of us add our own flavor enhancers after we cook them. The important thing here is to remember that it does not take much to turn a healthy breakfast into a caloric nightmare. Go easy on ingredients that can increase the fat and sugar content of your oatmeal (butter, cream, cheese, etc.) and go for those that increase protein and vitamins (dried or fresh fruits, skim milk, nuts, etc.). Remember, the whole reason for choosing oatmeal in the morning are its health benefits.

Whether you like your hot cereal crunchy, creamy, chewy, or laden with fruit, the choice is yours. It is hard to go wrong with a hearty, healthy bowl of oatmeal. It is a great way to start the day with a pop of nutrition, energy and taste. With the colder months ahead, it also the perfect prescription for keeping out the chill as you go about getting into your day. So eat up and sow those wild oats.