On a winter’s day, there’s nothing better than a bowl of hot creamy porridge. However, not all oats are created equal. We found some products loaded up with more than a quarter sugar.
When I was a kid, porridge was porridge. There were a few different types, such as scotch or steel-cut, but we cooked it in the pot and, to be fancy, might add a few raisins to the mix. Fast-forward to today and you can buy gourmet flavours, such as pecan, date and maple, and sachets you just pour into a bowl and add hot water or milk.
But are these gourmet and convenient options a healthy choice? Our investigation assessed the nutrition information and health star ratings of 58 oat offerings to find out.
While plain oats are healthy (as long as you don’t add lashings of brown sugar to your bowl), many of the single-serve sachets in our survey provide a sizeable sugar hit. Eleven sachets we assessed were high in sugar, with five more than 25% sugar – that’s on par with Nutri-Grain and Nestle Milo cereal.
In some cases, the sugar comes from fruit, but sugar is often the second largest ingredient.
Despite being high in sugar, these products could still get four health stars. That’s because of how the stars are calculated (a product high in sugar can still get a good rating if it’s high in fibre and low in saturated fat and sodium). This is one of our main criticisms of the health star rating system; high-sugar foods shouldn’t be able to get high ratings (see “Health star review”).
What about gluten-free?
Oats don’t contain the same gluten-containing protein as wheat, barley and rye. But they contain avenin, which can cause gut damage for about one in five people with coeliac disease. Coeliac New Zealand advises people with coeliac disease to avoid oats because there’s no way of knowing if you’re affected without doing a gastroscopy or biopsy.
If you’re following a gluten-free diet but don’t have coeliac disease, oats are probably OK to eat. However, some brands are processed in factories that also produce gluten-containing products, so there’s a risk of cross-contamination. This can also occur if oats are grown close to other crops.
You can buy oat-free porridge cereals but check the label to see what you’re getting. Ceres Organics’ Chia, Coconut LSA and Brown Rice Organic Hot Cereal and Organic Paleo Hot Cereal are high in saturated fat. Real Foods Quick n’Easy Rice Porridge Brown Sugar & Cinnamon sachets are high in sugar and low in fibre.
The origin of oats
If you want to buy local, choose Harraways or Blue Frog oats. Blue Frog and most Harraways products are made from New Zealand oats. The exception is Harraways organic offerings, which are Australian-grown.
Brookfarm, Countdown, Uncle Tobys and Hubbards also use Aussie oats, while Ceres Organics get their oats from Canada. Kialla Pure Foods and The Commonsense Pantry use oats from Finland.
Pams sources its oats from Australia and New Zealand. Foodstuffs (the marketers of Pams) told us over the next few months it will only use New Zealand oats, but this may change due to availability. Bob’s Red Mill oats are packed in the USA from imported ingredients.
You can buy rolled oats for less than 40¢ per 100g (or about 20¢ per serving), but you’ll pay a premium for sachets – even the cheapest in our survey costs more than double that. The most expensive sachet was Blue Frog Vanilla Bean & Chia Seed at $1.62 per serving.
There’s also the environmental cost of packaging. Many of the products we assessed came in a recyclable cardboard box, but the single-serve sachets themselves had to go into the bin. Harraways has introduced compostable sachets, which can be cut into strips and mixed into your compost.
Some Ceres Organics, Harraways and Pams packaging can be recycled, but you’ll need to check the pack to find out. The Commonsense Pantry oats come in a brown paper bag. Another option is buying your oats in bulk at the supermarket or a bulk-bin retailer.
Oats are good for you. Whether chopped up (steel-cut) or rolled thin (quick-cook), they’re high in fibre and low in saturated fat, sugar and sodium. They’re also packed with B vitamins, vitamin E and minerals such as magnesium and zinc.
Then there are the health benefits. Oats are high in fibre, which contributes to good digestive health, and eating them is protective against heart disease in adults. Oats are also rich in beta-glucan, a soluble fibre that helps keep your blood cholesterol down. The Food Standards Code permits products containing at least 1g per serving of beta-glucan from oat bran, wholegrain oats or wholegrain barley, to make a health claim that beta-glucan reduces blood cholesterol.
Get the most from your oats
The way oats are processed and cooked affects how quickly they are digested and their glycaemic index (GI) – a measure of how quickly a food increases blood glucose levels.
Dr Lisa Te Morenga, University of Victoria school of health senior lecturer, said the bigger the oats and the less cooked they are, the greater the health benefit.
“When you cook oats the starch is gelatinised. This makes them easier to digest but it also increases their glycaemic index, which raises blood glucose levels faster – a consideration for people with diabetes,” she said.
Dr Te Morenga said one way to lower the GI of oats is to soak them overnight before eating them – the same way you make bircher muesli. “Or you can eat your oats raw by making your own natural muesli.”
Types of oats
- Rolled oats or traditional oats, are made by hulling then steaming oat grains, pressing them between rollers and drying them. They take about five minutes to cook on the stove, or three minutes in the microwave. Lower GI than quick and scotch oats.
- Quick oats have been pressed thinner than rolled oats, so the porridge is smoother and cooks faster. Higher GI than rolled and steel-cut oats.
- Steel-cut oats are produced by removing the outer husk then cutting the whole oat groat into pieces using steel discs. Steel-cut oats take about 20 minutes to cook, but if you soak them overnight they’ll cook faster. These oats have a nuttier flavour than rolled or quick oats, and a chewier texture. Lower GI than quick and scotch oats.
- Scotch oats have been finely rolled, so they cook faster and make a creamier porridge. Higher GI than rolled and steel-cut oats.
Health star review
Health stars are being reviewed by the Health Star Rating Advisory Committee, which provides advice to government ministers.
One of the recommendations is that total sugars should be more strongly penalised. This would lower the stars of around 5% of products, including some breakfast cereals.
This may solve some of the problem products, however, we’re disappointed there is no recommendation to distinguish between products high in added sugars or intrinsic sugars (from fruit and milk). This is not consistent with dietary guidelines and World Health Organization recommendations to limit how much added sugars we consume.