The rain was lashing the windows. It was 8am, the lights were on and the sky was dark. It was the kind of morning where you shuffle around in your slippers til noon and postpone putting on your day-time clothes until you have to.
As my oatmeal bubbled, I picked up the tin of John McCann’s Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal :
Chicago, 1893, World’s Columbian Exhibition* (aka The World’s Fair) Certificate of Award (which on a prestige spectrum, I suppose falls somewhere between a certificate and an award), for “Uniformity of Granulation”.
This must have been one of the more tedious categories to judge and made me realize how seriously the craft of oat cutting was taken in 1893.
It also leads one to assume that these award-winning pellets (which are strikingly similar to the pellets we used to feed our hamsters),that take a half hour to cook, must be better for you than faster cooking traditional “rolled oats” and certainly better for you than the snowflake thin, ready-when-you-are, “instant” variety. Surely the 30 minute investment, pays off in greater life-extending benefits, benefits renounced by those choosing instant.
Actually not entirely (or mostly not entirely).
The oats in all oatmeal are whole grain oats. Steel cut oats are whole oats (groats**) that have been cut. Rolled oats are groats that have been steamed and rolled. Instant rolled oats are groats that have been steamed, rolled and reduced to wispy flakes.
Nutritionally speaking, all oatmeal has about 4 grams of protein per 1/2 cup dry (or 1/4 cup if steel cut since it’s heavier)*** and 4 grams of fiber. Even instant does. The reason why you see oats making “heart health” claims (but you don’t see whole wheat cereal doing this), is because oats are much higher than other grains in soluble fiber (which is indigestible but absorbs liquid in your gut, forming a gel which binds to the bad (LDL) cholesterol, escorting it out, rather than allowing it to attach itself to the arteries of your heart). They are also high in insoluble fiber (also indigestible, but absorbs no liquid and ferries food through the gut to keep intestines clear). Wheat delivers only insoluble fiber.**
So the nutrition label says all oatmeal are more or less equal, but is there more to the story? Rolled oats are not only squeezed through rollers but steamed; steel cut are robust and raw. But then again, though raw on arrival, steel cut don’t stay raw – you cook them. So perhaps it’s just a question of who’s at the steam controls – you or the processor.
Does the grueling ride through the rollers in some way, diminish them? If it’s the bran (the outer layer of the groat) where much of the soluble fiber resides, then some of this must get destroyed and raise the rate in which it gets turned into glucose once you eat it. The labels won’t give you an entirely clear picture on this, but excessive processing does decrease fiber, speeding digestion and leading to a more rapid rise in blood sugar.
Instant’s biggest “problem”, though, may not even be the instant part, but the company it keeps. Most instant brands have high levels of sugar (Quaker’s instant has 9g per pouch), color, flavorings and oat flour (for extra creaminess). If you want instant without the baggage, Whole Foods 365 makes a nothing-but-the-oats, instant oatmeal. (Or buy it in bulk.)
Anyway, nutrition aside, were steel cut reigns is taste. In choosing instant, you forgo the nutty, chewiness of historic oats, and lose the last tenuous connection with your horse and buggy ancestors.
In the end, the biggest reason, perhaps to choose steel cut, may have more to do with what’s on the outside of the oats - the tin.
Click here for my favorite way to eat oatmeal. I can’t really call it a recipe, it’s more like Instructions for Assembly.
Share your porridge stories!
Related Posts (these are some of the components of the oatmeal assembly)
Hemp:Hemp seeds: Better for you than flax seeds?
Coconut:Last time you had this nutrient was in breast milk.
*The World’s Fair was also called The Columbian Exhibition as it was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World.
** Groat is actually the name for all grains in their whole form when the outer hull has been removed but the germ, bran, and endosperm are intact.
***It has higher protein than all other grains, except quinoa which is not really a grain. Here’s an excellent glossary on grains.
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