March 3, 2014

Label Madness Monday: Oatmeal

It’s been a while since I posted a “proper” label takedown, so here’s my attempt at reclaiming my former glory. Today’s topic: oatmeal. I alluded to this in the post about granola, but oats have fallen victim to the same food processing and sweetening madness that have transformed other simple, nutritious, and wholesome whole foods into desserts so laden with sugar and vegetable oil that you wouldn’t even eat them for dessert, let alone breakfast. In their whole, unrefined state, oats are a decent carbohydrate source in the grain family. They have a fair bit of fiber and a not pitiful amount of vitamins and minerals. (Animal foods—such as liver—pack a much bigger nutritional bang for your buck, but if you’re inclined to eat grains and your individual carbohydrate tolerance allows for them, you could do a lot worse than old fashioned oats.) But let’s see what kind of health havoc happens when food processors get their hands on this humble traditional staple food of Ireland and Scotland.

Here are two products, for the sake of comparison. We have your basic, quick-cooking oats, and Quaker Real Medleys™ Apple Walnut Oatmeal +™. (We’ll see what the “plus” is for in a bit.) 

It's been a long time since I've eaten oats, but when I had them now and then, I much preferred steel-cut. I like the texture and nutty flavor better than regular old-fashioned and much better than quick cooking. But that’s neither here nor there. Let’s stick to the data. Just keep in mind that this apple walnut variety is one of several super-convenient ones Quaker offers (others have peaches or berries), not to mention the eye-popping number of other versions available these days from other brands: maple & brown sugar; peaches & cream; cinnamon roll; banana bread; chocolate—and lots of others that are designed to make you forget you’re eating oatmeal. (Even though, in my humble opinion, plain oatmeal with absolutely nothing on it is pretty decent tasting and I see no reason to hide the taste.) My point is, what I say here about this one would likely apply to any and all of those other sugar-fied flavors.

Okay, first let’s compare the ingredients.

Oatmeal 1: Whole grain rolled oats. (One ingredient.)

Oatmeal 2: Yowza! It’s hard to determine how many ingredients are in this one. Should we count “sugar” as just one, or count it as three, for the three separate times it’s mentioned, plus brown sugar, plus fructose. (I guess this is the “+” they’re talking about.) Of course, that doesn’t include the natural sugars in the “sweetened apples,” the “dehydrated apples,” or the “dried sweetened cranberries.” Um, apples are pretty sweet on their own. I’m not quite sure why Quaker felt the need to add more sugar. And this isn’t just oatmeal, folks. It’s wheatmeal, barleymeal, and ryemeal. Four grains! They managed to cram four different kinds of grains and three kinds of added sugar into this itty bitty 75-gram container.

Now let’s take a gander at the macronutrients on these bad boys.

Oats are relatively high in carbohydrates, so I’m not expecting the quick-cooking oats (on the left) to be low-carb. For a 40g serving, we’ve got 27g of total carbs, with 4g of fiber and just 1g of naturally occurring sugar. A little bit of protein, and a tiny bit of fat. No big deal; I can’t imagine many people turn to oats as a primary source of protein or fat.

What about the Real Medleys™? (On the right.) The serving size here is 75g, so we’ve got to level the mathematical playing field before we can do a proper comparison. The first thing to realize is that this isn’t 75g of oats. It’s 75g of oats, plus the sugar, wheat, barley, rye, dried fruit, walnuts, and flavorings. But all we can really do is compare it to 75g of straight-up oats. Based on the nutrition label for the one here, 75g of plain oats would get us 281 total calories, compared to 290 for the sweetened stuff. Not too big a difference—the whacked-out dessert version has just 9 more calories. For total carbs, 75g of plain oats would give us 50.6g of carbs. Not too far off from the 53g in the sweet version. I have to admit, that surprised me. I expected a bigger difference. But I didn’t have to wait long to have that expectation met. Look at the sugar numbers. The plain oatmeal has just 1g of sugar for a 40g serving. At that rate, 75g of plain oatmeal would net us 1.875g of sugar. Compare that to the 22g of sugar in the candy sweetened one here, and that, my friends, is the “plus.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that all the carbohydrates in both of these oatmeals—yes, even the plain one—will eventually be digested down to “sugar” (i.e. glucose). What I’m trying to emphasize here is the added sugar coming from the sugar, brown sugar, fructose, and dried fruit. If you were to eat an equivalent amount of the plain oats, minus the copious sweetening agents, your body actually would have to digest those oats down into simple sugar. When you consume the straight-up sugar, the digestion is done for you, so it can hit your bloodstream that much faster.

Gram for gram, the plain oats win out on protein. At an equivalent 75g serving, they'd yield around 9.4g protein, which beats the 6g in the mucked up version.

The best thing the Real Medleys™ has going for it is the extra fat -- 8g compared to 3g for the plain. (For equivalent 75g servings, the plain oats would have 5.6g fat, so the sweetened stuff still has more.) Im guessing it comes from the walnuts, and that's a good thing. One positive angle for this product that is otherwise a sugar shock wasteland.  

Now you know we have to look at the prices, too, and this is where things really get outrageous. 

When they’re not on sale, the plain oats (on the right) are 11.9 cents an ounce. That’s $1.90 per pound. At the sale price of 2 for $5, they’re 6 cents an ounce. That’s 96 cents per pound. 96 cents!! Less than a dollar a pound!

How about the other stuff? (On the left.) At the regular price, it’s 75.8 cents per ounce, or $12.12 a pound. Over twelve dollars a pound! For oats and sugar!! (And people think grass-fed beef is expensive? Please. These manufacturers are robbing us blind! They start with raw materials [oats & sugar] that are dirt cheap, put them in a pretty paper cup, and jack up the price by multiple orders of magnitude, all to save us thirty seconds of chopping some apples and walnuts and throwing them onto our own oatmeal.) The sale price isn’t much better. At 2 for 3, it’s 56.9 cents an ounce, which is $9.10 per pound. Almost ten dollars—and almost ten times the price of the plain oats!! This is how they get us, folks. At first glance, 2 for $3 sounds like a better deal than 2 for $5, but when you take a minute to look at the size of the containers and the unit cost, you discover pretty quickly that you pay big time for the privilege of having Quaker throw a bunch of sugar, some dried fruit, and a sprinkling of cinnamon onto your oatmeal for you. This. Is. Crazy. The Real Medleys™ cups weigh in at 2.64 ounces, while the big tub o’ oats is 42 ounces—over two and a half pounds of oats! It’s almost sixteen times as much product. No wonder 2 for $5 is actually a better deal. Look how much more you get!

Okay. Let’s talk about this a little. I’m not immune to convenience foods. They’re called that for a reason: they’re convenient. And nobody wants to babysit a pot of steel-cut oats at 6:30 in the morning and fish the cinnamon out of the spice cabinet while their eyes are still half-closed, and DAMMIT, WHERE IS THE COFFEE?!! So I get it. I do. Really. But let’s think about some other ways to make this pretty convenient. Before we get to that, though, we should go over who can probably do well with oatmeal and who might want to avoid it. Oatmeal—especially if it’s sugary, fruity oatmeal—is best consumed after a tough workout. If you’re generally low-ish carb most of the time, the time to refill those glycogen stores is after you’ve gone and depleted them. If you’re overweight, insulin resistant, and sedentary, oatmeal might be okay once in a while, but it’s probably best left off your menu altogether for a while until your body is better equipped to handle it. Like Diane Sanfilippo says in Practical Paleo, don’t carb-load for your desk job. If you’re going to be sitting still in front of a computer for a few hours, oatmeal really isn’t the ideal way to start the day. (No point in having a blood sugar spike unless that glucose has somewhere to go, and if you’re sittin’ on your keister all day and don’t have a lot of muscle mass, it mostly doesn’t.)

Okay, fine. Let’s say you still want oatmeal for breakfast. (Or any other time of day, for that matter.) There’s really no reason to turn to the “convenience” versions. We’ve already shown they’re loaded with sugar and you pay an arm and leg for them. If you’re at home, there’s no reason you can’t take an extra couple of minutes to cook real oats and add whatever spices you like. (And maybe a little bit of fruit or real maple syrup, if that’s your thing.) You can microwave them, for crissake. In that regard, plain oats are just as convenient as the processed ones.

But let’s say you’re at work, and let’s also say your work involves a desk/cubicle-type setup. (You have my sympathies.) Oats are non-perishable. Dried fruit is non-perishable. Cinnamon and nuts are sort-of non-perishable. You can keep all of these things in airtight containers in a drawer or cabinet at your workstation. (Worried about the nuts going rancid? Keep ‘em in the office fridge.) Keep an electric kettle at your desk, too, and you’ll be able to pour boiling water right over the oats and be good to go. You can add small amounts of dried fruit if you like (dates are super yummy here, as are golden raisins), but better yet, add whole, non-dried fruit. (Lower glycemic load.) Even better still, don’t add fruit. Cinnamon is actually pretty sweet when your palate isn’t accustomed to Twinkies and Krispy Kremes. Best of all, add some nuts and get good fats in. Chopped walnuts or pecans are dynamite on oatmeal. You could also keep coconut oil at your desk, or butter or heavy cream in the office fridge. All delicious with oatmeal. Depending on what you put in it, you can make oats a warm, nourishing, nutritious meal, or you can make it blood sugar napalm.

There are so many ways to easily prepare “convenience foods” at work, but get all the nourishment and satisfaction of the homemade, non-convenience version. It just takes a little creativity, and maybe hauling a couple of things in to the office with you now and then. Keep a couple of bowls and pieces of silverware there. (Even better if you keep real silverware there, so you don’t throw out a plastic fork or spoon every day, but I’ll spare you my tree-huggery. You can wash things in the office kitchen sink or, worst case scenario, the bathroom. My point is you don’t need to throw out paper/plastic food accoutrements every day.) Of course, if you do like your oatmeal sweetened (and I can’t blame you), you can keep handy whatever sweetener you like, whether that’s stevia, a pack of Splenda, or a container of real honey or maple syrup. Cinnamon is a great thing to keep at work—it’s delish in coffee! And if you do decide to get an electric kettle and keep it at your desk (as opposed to simply microwaving your oatmeal), you can use it to make coffee this way:

The pour-over method. Yum.
(And my beloved Rosie the Riveter mug.)

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Thanks again for the price reality check.


  2. Amazing how much sugar costs nowadays!!