10 March 2011

Oatmeal–The on-going debate

Toward the end of February, there was a lot of internet chatter about oatmeal. Mark Bittman posted an Opinionator column slamming McDonald’s essentially for ruining an otherwise healthy menu item. He also posted a link on Twitter to a Slate article rating various fast food oatmeal servings.

This all caught my attention for two reasons. First, I have happy memories of making oatmeal for my kids when they were little. Second, I’ve been eating oatmeal more regularly, lately. Oatmeal

I haven’t eaten oatmeal at McDonald’s, and I’m not likely to in any case. But I do order oatmeal sometimes at Starbucks and Caribou. And I regularly have oatmeal at the company cafeteria.

Bittman’s complaint about the McDonald’s oatmeal boils down to this: they take a simple basic food and make it into junk food with a bunch of sugary additions and additives for who-knows-what purpose. OK. That’s basically why I don’t eat at McDonald’s anyway. But his article was basically just a rant against McDonald’s.

I liked the Slate article. They, at least, established some criteria for evaluating the oatmeal at McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Au Bon Pain. But one of the things I was frustrated with was the lack of nutritional analysis. I mean, here’s what it boils down to for me. Why would you order oatmeal instead of a donut, a Pop-Tart, or a breakfast sandwich? Basically because you’re willing to give up a flavor jolt in favor of greater nutrition.

(In his Opinionator rant, Bittman observes that the McDonald’s version of oatmeal actually has only 10 fewer calories than a cheeseburger or an Egg McMuffin. Good point. But sort of a narrow comparison. Bottled water has fewer calories than milk. Which has more nutrition, however?

So here’s my addition to the discussion. I looked up the nutritional analysis of the versions of oatmeal served at each of the venues in the Slate article. Since I’ve been eating Caribou’s oatmeal, I added that as well.

McDonald’s: Slate ranked it at the bottom of its taste and aesthetic scale. They basically said that someone might come in thinking they’d eat a healthy serving of oatmeal, but when confronted with the reality of a bowl of gray, lumpy mush, would opt for a breakfast sandwich instead. (Sort of Bittman’s argument as well.) Nutrition stats (from McDonald’s web site): Serving size = 250 grams. Calories = 290 (with brown sugar). Fat = 4.5 grams. Sodium = 160 mg. Fiber = 5 grams. Price = $1.99.

Au Bon Pain: Slate ranked this one in the middle. They liked that it’s prepared in large batches and ‘ladled from a big, communal pot.’ I’ve never had oatmeal at Au Bon Pain. So I can’t argue with their assessment from personal experience. But when I read their ratings, it seemed like maybe ABP’s oatmeal got unfairly marked down by some judges because it was bland. (WTF – that’s oatmeal.) Nutrition stats for apple cinnamon oatmeal from ABP web site: Serving size (small) = 227 grams. Calories = 190. Fat = 3 grams. Sodium = 5 mg. Fiber = 25 grams. Price = (No data).

Starbucks: This one won the Slate rankings. But as I read the reviews, I can’t honestly say why. It’s an individually prepared, instant mix. I’ve had Starbucks oatmeal and liked it ok. Nutrition stats = Calories = 290 (with brown sugar and dried fruit). Fat = 2.5 grams. Sodium = 105 mg. Fiber = 6 grams.

Caribou: Slate didn’t rate Caribou. (Too Midwestern?) But I have Caribou oatmeal fairly regularly. So I decided to include it in this review. I don’t know if it’s instant or prepared to order; I think it might be instant. But I’ve found it to be reliably good and not excessively gummy. Nutrition stats: Serving size = 215 grams. Calories = 280. Fat = 4.5 grams. Sodium = 170 mg. Fiber = 7 grams.

Now one of the points that Bittman was trying to make is that oatmeal is a very simple, basic food. He was objecting to how fast food companies turn it into ‘junk’ with all kinds of additives. So perhaps the best way to compare is to go to the source and see what the nutritional rating is for regular Quaker Oats. I’m hoping that the cafeteria oatmeal that I eat the most is most comparable to this.

Here’s what I found for a regular serving with 2 tablespoons of sugar and about a quarter cup of raisins: Calories = 325. Fat = 3 grams. Sodium = 5 mg. Fiber = 6 grams.

So how does it all wash out for me. I like the Caribou oatmeal the best personally. I’ve never had Au Bon Pain nor McDonald’s. But based on the Slate review, I think I’d probably prefer Au Bon Pain. I like homemade oatmeal the best of all. But when I have breakfast at home, I very seldom take the time to cook oatmeal.

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