UPDATE 10/30/2014: I’ve updated the “best of” concept for oat cereals here.
Oats are one of those foods blessed with a Health Halo for an actual true reason: the soluble fiber unique to oats, called beta-glucan, helps lower blood cholesterol. While oat fiber isn’t a magic bullet that will bring your cholesterol down from 300 to 150, it cause a modest decrease over time. In order to maintain the effect, you have to keep eating oats. It’s not like taking an antibiotic. You’re not cured after a couple of weeks. One study suggested that 6 grams/day of oat fiber for six weeks resulted in significantly lower LDL cholesterol. Six grams is the amount in one big bowl of oatmeal.
Since you’re now convinced you need to eat oat cereal for the health benefits, how should we define what your best choices are? My definition is this: made entirely from oats (or as close as possible), with a minimum of added sweeteners. I didn’t consider granolas, even though most contain oats. They also contain oil, sweeteners and a wide variety of other ingredients from fruit to nuts, all of which change the amount of actual oats in your bowl of cereal.
The most obviously oat-y choice is oatmeal. Just plain rolled oats, in their natural state, without additives or sweeteners.
1/2 cup of dry oats cooks into about 1 cup of oatmeal, and provides 2 grams of soluble fiber. Whether you use rolled oats, quick cooking oats, instant, Irish Oatmeal or steel cut oats, you’re still getting soluble fiber. The only nutrition catch is: how much sweetener do you add? Sweeteners add calories. Some people enjoy the nutty flavor of plain oats, which is the best approach. Don’t drown your healthy oatmeal in sugary sweeteners.
If plain oatmeal isn’t your thing, here are some other possible choices in no particular order:
- Quaker High Fiber Instant Oatmeal: a whopping 8 grams of soluble fiber in a serving, mainly due to added oat flour. Contains some sweetener.
- Cheerios: popular and easy to eat, not overly sweetened, but you have to eat a lot to get a meaningful amount of soluble fiber.
- Kashi Heart to Heart: the ready-to-eat cold cereal variety isn’t purely oats, and the soluble fiber content is about the same as Cheerios. The cooked Heart to Heart version is higher in soluble fiber, comparable to oatmeal.
- Mother’s Toasted Oat Bran (cold cereal)
- Quaker Oatmeal Squares (my current favorite): slightly sweetened, not 100% oats. Here’s why I personally like them: they make a nice snack, just eaten dry out of the box. Crunchy and satisfying, healthier than chips or cookies. And who says cereal has to be eaten only for breakfast anyway?
Finally a word about steel cut oats. They don’t have any more fiber than rolled oats, and aren’t a healthier version. They’re just processed differently, and have a slightly nuttier flavor. They take more time to cook, so they’re not for people who rush out the door in the morning. They might be a nice choice for a weekend breakfast or brunch.