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Everything you need to know about oats

 SO MANY DIFFERENT OATMEAL PRODUCTS ARE AVAILABLE, WHICH ONE IS HEALTHY?

Article by Dr. Layla Sade

Photography by Layla Sade

You can choose between instant oats, old-fashioned rolled oats, quick cooking (rolled) oats, quick cooking steel-cut oats and Irish steel-cut oats. Instant oats come plain, in assorted flavors, with various sugar substitutes and with added fiber and/or protein. So, you may ask: which one is the healthiest? Is the added protein and fiber beneficial?

Here is an explanation of the different types of oatmeal so you can decide which is best for you.

How oats are processed

All types of oats (steel-cut, rolled and instant) are a whole grain. They all contain the bran, endosperm (starchy center of the grain) and the germ. Thus, all types of oats are similar nutritionally — which surprises many people. The difference in the various types of oats is how the whole grain oat kernels are processed.

Instant oats

Due to its convenience, instant oatmeal is the most popular type of oats. It cooks quickly and produces a very soft, mushy texture. Instant oatmeal is the most processed type of oats. It is produced by finely chopping rolled oats.

Since the oats are in very small pieces, they get digested rapidly. So, they raise blood sugar more than other types of oats. Plain (unsweetened) instant oats have a high glycemic index of 79. The glycemic index is a measurement of how much a food raises blood sugar.

Flavored instant oatmeal has sugar added to it. This gives it an even higher glycemic index. Depending on the flavor; flavored instant oatmeal contains 8 or 12 grams of added sugar per packet. That’s equal to two or three teaspoons of added sugar per packet. Since most people eat two packets, they’re eating four to six teaspoons of sugar. This is almost the entire amount of sugar a person should get in a one day — in just one bowl of oatmeal. Experts recommend limiting sugar intake to six teaspoons per day for women and ten teaspoons per day for men. For persons with diabetes, this can cause damaging high blood sugar levels. It also can increase harmful inflammation. Besides arthritis, inflammation is linked to many chronic conditions including heart disease.

High protein instant oatmeal

Each packet of flavored high protein instant oatmeal contains 10 or 11 grams of added sugar, depending on the flavor. Thus, two packets of this instant oatmeal deliver 20 to 22 grams of added sugar — or five to five and a half teaspoons of added sugar. Way too much sugar. High protein instant oatmeal contains 10 grams of protein from added whey per packet. Whey comes from milk.

Lower sugar instant oatmeal

Instant oatmeal labeled “lower sugar” contains 4 grams of added sugar. Four grams equals one teaspoon of sugar. Thus, two packets of this delivers two teaspoons of sugar. This is less sugar than the other flavored instant oatmeal. However, as an instant oatmeal, it will still raise blood sugar more than less processed oats.

Sugar-free instant oatmeal

Sugar-free instant oatmeal contains the sugar substitute sucralose. Recent research has discovered that two types of sugar substitutes, sucralose and saccharin, increase the harmful bacteria in our GI tract. So, if you want a sugar-free instant oatmeal, choose plain instant oatmeal. It’s sugar free without a harmful sugar substitute. Then add just a sprinkle of monk fruit extract, and/or some naturally sweet fruit such as ripe banana, blueberries or strawberries.

High-fiber instant oatmeal

The high-fiber instant oatmeal with maple and brown sugar flavoring contains an added soluble fiber called chicory root extract. Soluble fiber forms a gel in our intestine, slowing down the absorption of food. This reduces the rise in blood sugar after meals.

One packet of high-fiber instant oatmeal contains a whopping 10 grams of fiber (9 grams as soluble fiber). Each packet contains only 6 grams of added sugar — or one and one-half teaspoons of sugar. It uses monk fruit extract as a sweetener. Monk fruit is considered a safe sweetener — unlike sucralose and saccharin. Thus, high-fiber instant oatmeal is a good choice for persons with diabetes who like the convenience of instant oatmeal. However, less processed oats are an even better choice.

Rolled oats

Rolled oats are also known as old-fashioned oats. They are produced by steaming the oat kernel and then rolling it flat. Rolled oats cook in about half the time as steel-cut oats. Plus, they have a milder flavor and softer texture than steel-cut oats. These are the best type of oats for making cookies, crisps, granola, muesli, overnight oats and oatmeal bread/waffles/pancakes. Rolled oats have a medium glycemic index of 59. Thus, they raise blood sugar levels much less than instant oats.

Steel-cut oats

For the least-processed oats, choose steel-cut oats. These are produced by chopping the oat kernel into two to four pieces with steel blades. This produces an oatmeal with a chewy texture and nutty flavor. Since steel-cut oats are in large pieces, they take the longest to cook compared with other types of oats. They also take the longest to digest. Therefore, steel-cut oats raise blood sugar less than the other types of oats. This gives them a low glycemic index of 52. Thus, steel-cut oats are the best choice for persons with diabetes.

Steel-cut oats are not recommended for cooking in the microwave. However, soaking steel-cut oats in a kettle with water overnight cuts the required cooking time in half.

Making oatmeal healthier

There are several ways to make rolled oats and steel-cut oats even healthier:

• Cook and chill oatmeal overnight: Cooking and then chilling oatmeal overnight converts some of its starch into resistant starch. Resistant starch resists being broken down by the GI tract enzymes. It passes through the GI tract unabsorbed. Therefore, cooked and chilled overnight oatmeal raises blood sugar less than freshly cooked oats.

In addition, resistant starch passes through to the colon, where it serves as food for the beneficial bacteria. Feeding these bacteria strengthens our immune system. Besides being a healthier choice, cooked and chilled oatmeal makes it almost as convenient as less healthful instant oats. To make oatmeal containing resistant starch, cook a large batch of rolled oats or steel-cut oats in a slow cooker. Refrigerate the cooked oatmeal overnight in individual serving containers. Then, simply reheat the cooked oatmeal in the microwave. Reheating the cooked oatmeal in the microwave does not destroy the resistant starch.

• Add fiber-rich foods: Soluble fiber slows down the absorption of food and thus reduces the rise in blood sugar levels after eating. Plus, it is a prebiotic, or food for the beneficial bacteria in our GI tract.

Ground flaxseed is one of the richest sources of soluble fiber. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed to cooked rolled or steel-cut oatmeal.

Nuts such as walnuts, almonds or pecans add a bit more fiber. So does fruit. One of my favorite combinations is oatmeal with mashed, ripe banana and walnuts. It tastes like warm banana bread. Or try mixing in fresh blueberries, strawberries, diced apples and cinnamon, sliced banana or even diced canned peaches.

So, you see there are many choices for oatmeal. All types are whole grain and rich in heart-healthy beta glucan soluble fiber. Thus, the best oatmeal is the one you will eat. The most important thing is to keep the amount of added sugar as low as possible.

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