Oatmeal is one of the healthiest breakfasts you can choose to start your day with.
“Oatmeal is packed with good nutrition including fiber and iron,” he says Amber Pankonin, MS, RD, registered dietitian and owner of the food blog Stirlist. “Fiber can help keep you fuller longer and help lower cholesterol. Iron is an important mineral for growth and development, so oatmeal makes a great breakfast for people of all ages.”
It’s also great for managing blood sugar and overall gut health.
“Oatmeal contains a soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which research shows to lower blood glucose and cholesterol, giving it protective qualities against heart disease and diabetes,” says registered dietitian Jonathan Valdez, RDN, owner of Genki Nutrition and a spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Oatmeal also helps with a healthy gut, preventing constipation when paired with adequate fluids, and may decrease your risk for colon cancer.”
However, not all oatmeals are healthy for you, especially when it comes to pre-packaged oatmeal options. But let’s be real — they are convenient, quick, and easy. So if you’re looking to pick a high-quality pre-packaged oatmeal, Pankonin notes that the ingredient list should begin with whole grain rolled oats or oats.
What makes high-quality oatmeal packets and cups
When looking for the highest quality oatmeals, there are a few things to watch for.
Oats should be the first ingredient. “The ingredients are listed in order of abundance, so you want oats to be the first ingredient listed,” Pankonin tells us.
Don’t look over store brand or generic quick oats. “Don’t be turned off by purchasing the store label or generic brand,” she says. “These can be a great option as they are often cheaper and are still produced with minimal processing — especially if the first ingredient listed is ‘whole grain rolled oats’ or ‘oats.'”
Look for options that are low in added sugars and high in protein. “For example, you might see the label ‘Lower Sugar,'” says Pankonin. “Look for options that might contain more protein and a few added sugars. For example, you might see the label ‘Protein’ listed beside the flavor on the package.”
How to avoid low-quality oatmeals
As for things that may indicate an oatmeal is lower quality, there are a few major red flags.
They contain a lot of sugar. “The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 6 percent of calories each day,” says Pankonin. “For women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day or 25 grams of added sugar. For men, it’s 150 calories per day, or about 36 grams.”
They share the same name as popular breakfast cereals. “These flavored oatmeal packets can be high in added sugar and sodium,” says Pankonin. “It’s important to make sure you are reading nutrition facts labels to compare.”
They’re in an assorted variety pack. “The nutrition facts can vary between the different flavors,” says Pankonin. “Instead, read the labels and purchase the variety with the lowest amount of sugar and sodium.”
They’re labeled as dessert flavors. “Beware of‘ dessert ’flavors, like‘ cinnamon roll, ’” says Valdez, which likely means higher sugar. “However, in the grand scheme of things, if it will decrease the number of real desserts you will be eating, if not in moderation, then, by all means, do the flavored oatmeal version.”
Keep in mind: organic does not equal healthy. “Organic doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be lower in sugar or sodium or be healthier,” says Pankonin. “Be sure to read the nutrition facts label to compare options.”
Read on for six oatmeals with the lowest quality ingredients, according to dietitians, and for more, don’t miss The Surprising Side Effects of Eating Oatmeal, According to Science.
Per pouch: 150 calories, 2 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 200 mg sodium, 31 g carbs (2 g fiber, 12 g sugar), 3 g protein
If the name wasn’t an immediate red flag, the nutritional panel for this Fruity Pebbles oatmeal should be; it’s both high in sugar while being low in digestion-slowing macronutrients like fiber and protein. “This packet has 200 milligrams of sodium, 12 grams of added sugar, and only 2 grams of fiber per serving,” says Pankonin.
Per packet: 160 calories, 2 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 0 g cholesterol, 260 mg sodium, 33 g carbs (3 g fiber, 12 g sugar), 4 g protein
Oatmeal is a heart-healthy breakfast, but you’d have to add a lot of ingredients to this packet to make it a filling meal; it’s lacking fiber and protein and contains a significant amount of sugar. “This packet contains 260 milligrams of sodium and 12 grams of added sugar per serving,” says Pankonin. If you must buy this, try making these Oatmeal Combinations for Faster Weight Loss, Says Nutritionist.
Per cup: 250 calories, 5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 47 g carbs (5 g fiber, 19 g sugar), 7 g protein
Although store-brand products can be inexpensive sources of oatmeal, you still need to be reading their nutrition facts before purchasing. Take this 365 Whole Foods Market oatmeal cup, for example. “The 19 grams of added sugar is a lot,” says Valdez. “In this oatmeal that’s about 38% of the DV recommendation.”
Per packet: 210 calories, 2.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 100 mg sodium, 40 g carbs (4 g fiber, 14 g sugar), 5 g protein
It may be labeled as “organic,” but even these harmful pesticide-free packets can be high in sugar. “This particular instant oatmeal packet has 40 grams of carbohydrate per serving with 13 grams of added sugar, which is 26% DV added sugar,” says Pankonin.