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Is Instant Oatmeal Good For You?

Is Instant Oatmeal a Good Stand-In for Old Fashioned Oatmeal, Quick Oats or Thick Rolled Oats? You Might Be Surprised At The Answer.

Dear Fitness Nerd,instant-oatmeal-in-spoon

I dont mind oatmeal, but Im kind of rushed in the morning and preparing the usual Quaker old fashioned oatmeal is kind of a pain.  Id really prefer to use instant oatmeal. Is instant oatmeal good for you? I mean, how does it compare to  regular oatmeal in terms of healthiness and nutritional value?  Thanks! Aaron (St. Paul, Minnesota)

Given the choice between eating no oatmeal, and eating instant oatmeal, I would say the instant oats are still a good breakfast choice (with some caveats.)  Maybe not ideal, but eating healthy is a matter of degrees.


The reason oatmeal consistently makes my top 10 list of clean eating foods is two fold:

  • Its high in both soluble and insoluble fiber. The soluble fiber is really the key, because the beta-glucansin oatmeal have been shown to help reduce bad cholesterol by literally binding to them and sweeping them out of the body
  • Its a great source of slow-digesting, complex carbohydrates. The more whole the grain, the slower the digestion. This helps keep blood sugar levels stable, prevents energy crashes as the gym or office and discourages you from feeling hungry later in the morning or day.

I mention these two benefits because when you compare instant oatmeal to things like slower-cooking rolled oats because the way the oat is processed does have some impact on how the body digests them.  This can effect the second benefit slower digestion but generally doesnt negatively impact the first, cholesterol-lowering benefit.

But before we get into that, lets understand exactly what instant oatmeal is and compare its nutritional values versus old fashioned oatmeal (rolled oats.)

What Is Instant Oatmeal?

Instant oatmeal is simply thinly rolled oats which are then cut into very small pieces and pre-cooked by steaming.

The oatmeal is then typically enhanced with natural or unnatural flavorings, salt, sugar, and in some cases, preservatives. Its then stuck in little 1 oz serving packets for convenience.  This is the Maple and Brown sugar stuff you find in the box in the cereal isle.

Most instant oatmeal also comes in a regular flavor, which doesnt have all the sugar and preservatives added, although it will often contain some added salt.  For the sake of your question, were going to look at the regular, unsweetened variety.  If we compared the flavored stuff, the old fashioned oats would win hands down.

The advantage of instant oatmeal over other forms of oatmeal like old fashioned oatmeal or oat groats, is cooking time. Thick cut or old fashioned rolled oats will typically take about ten minutes to cook on the stove top (less in the microwave); quick oats take about two minutes, and instant oats well, you just add hot water and youre all set.

Some people obviously also enjoy the added sugar and flavor in things like Raisin and Brown Sugar instant oatmeal, but the flavored varieties are where you start running into the nutritional problems especially around sugar and sodium so stay away from them.

What Is The Nutritional Value of Instant Oatmeal?

Surprisingly, if you go with the natural, unsweetened and unflavored variety of instant oatmeal, the basic nutritional values of instant oats are not all that different from slower cooking old fashioned oatmeal.

Heres what a 1 oz packet of Quaker Instant Oatmeal (regular flavor with no added sugar) looks like:

Calories:  100
Fat: 2.0 grams
Saturated Fat: 0
Cholesterol: 0
Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 80 mg
Carbohydrates: 19 grams
Fiber: 3 grams
Sugar: 0 grams
Calcium: 100 mg

Now, lets look at a 1 oz dry serving of Quaker Old Fashioned Oatmeal (the stuff that takes 10 minutes to cook):

Calories: 106
Fat: 2.1
Saturated Fat: 0.4
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Protein: 3.5 grams
Sodium: 0 mg
Carbohydrate: 19.1 grams
Fiber: 2.9 grams
Sugar: 0.7 grams
Calcium: 0 mg

Surprise! Aside from the higher sodium content, the regular Quaker Instant Oatmeal actually has a marginally better macro-nutrient profile.

Why is that?

Well, the Quaker Oatmeal has the addition of oat flour added to the packets, which increases the fiber and protein content slightly.  The higher calcium content is due to the addition of calcium carbonate to the mixture. Quaker also fortifies the instant oatmeal with a number of vitamins as well.

Now, you can get into philosophical and nutritional debates around whether these added vitamins and ingredients are good or bad, but from a basic nutrition perspective, instant oatmeal has gotten an undeserved, bad rap. Its actually just as nutritious as old fashioned rolled oats.

But Instant Oatmeal Is Pre-Cooked! Isnt That Bad?

Food purists often criticize instant oatmeal because its pre-cooked.  The argument is that this pre-cooking reduces the natural nutritional values of the oat compared to thick cut rolled oats or oat groats.

But heres a little secret:

Unless you are eating raw oat groats straight from the field, almost all oat products, including steel cut oats, thick rolled oats and Old Fashioned oatmeal are pre-cooked to some degree through the standard steaming process thats done during milling.  If they didnt do this, it could literally take an hour to fully cook the raw oat.

Even raw oat bran is only marginally more nutrition ounce-for-ounce when you look strictly at the macros.

Now, could there be benefits to eating a less processed or uncooked form of oats, especially in terms of heat-sensitive vitamins?  Perhaps. But when you compare instant oatmeal to old fashioned oats using the standard macros, they are pretty much equal.

Instant Oatmeal vs. Old Fashioned Oatmeal: Glycemic Load

The main difference between instant oatmeal versus old fashioned oatmeal is in regard to how rapidly the carbohydrates in instant oatmeal are digested and impact blood sugar levels.

In general, more finely chopped a food is, the more quickly its digested. Cooking also makes carbohydrates more easily digested.

The conventional wisdom around instant oatmeal versus old fashioned oatmeal is that instant oats spike blood sugar levels more dramatically than slower cooking rolled oatmeal varieties.

One of the ways this is measured is by looking at the glycemic load of a food, which measures how a particular food impacts blood sugar and insulin.  The higher the glycemic load (GL) number, the more impact a food has on insulin release.

Unsweetened, instant oatmeal has a glycemic load of 17 versus 13 for regular oats.  The scale goes from 1-50 with pure glucose having a glycemic load of 50.  To provide some perspective, brown rice that staple of clean eating has a GL of 18 and whole sweet potatoes (another bodybuilding favorite) have a GL of 17:  In other words, on par with instant oatmeal.

So even here, while the instant variety of oatmeal does have more impact on blood sugar levels, its not nearly as dramatic as people often think especially compared to other whole food sources of complex carbs that are consumed every day as part of a healthy diet.

Its also important to remember the GL can be effected by the other foods you eat with the oatmeal, so if you are adding things like almonds, whey protein or whole fruit, the GL will typically decrease.

So Is Instant Oatmeal Good For You? The Verdict

Provided you are just talking about plain, regular instant oatmeal without the added sugar of things like Maple & Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal or Cinnamon & Spice Instant Oatmeal, instant oatmeal is still a solid breakfast.

Youll still get the cholesterol-lower benefits of the soluble oat fiber and while instant oatmeal does have a slightly higher glycemic load its not nearly as bad as people think.  So if the convenience of instant oatmeal helps you eat more of this healthy food, then go ahead and eat it.

In terms of sodium, even here, instant oatmeal isnt terrible. There are other sources of food you probably eat daily with much more salt. So I wouldnt over-focus on this unless you are on a sodium-controlled diet.

The Main Difference: Flavor and Texture

At the end of the day, the biggest difference between instant oatmeal and things like thick rolled oatsor Scottish oats is the texture, flavor and how satisfying and filling they are.

Instant oatmeal is very mushy and its flavor cant really compare to something like thick rolled oats.  But many people like instant oatmeal just fine.

Also, oatmeal that takes longer to cook tends to absorb more water, and increases in volume much more than instant oats.  Eating old fashioned or thick rolled oatmeal can help you feel fuller, for longer and makes the non-instant variety of oats more satisfying for many people.  So that definitely can be an advantage.

If you want to have the convenience of instant oatmeal but with some of the flavor and texture benefits of a slower-cooking oatmeal, you can always prepare a large batch of oatmeal the night before and simply warm it up in a microwave the next morning. You will probably have to add some water or skim milk to it to make it creamier, but this is one way to get the time saving benefits of instant and the flavor benefits of slow-cooked oats.

Oatmeal prepared ahead of time can be stored in the refrigerator in a covered container for up to four days.

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Comments (23)

  1. Joyce Trent (1 comments) says:

    Thank YOU for a very complete answer and I will continue to eat instant oatmeal though my friends think it is less nutrious than the regular, slower cooking variety.

  2. sascha (1 comments) says:

    So one of the arguments here is that regular oats and unsweetened instant are definitely better than the instants with flavoring. But any sane person is going to put sweetener in unflavored oatmeal, arent they?

  3. Rob Murphy (1 comments) says:

    Good article that makes me feel better about the instant oatmeal I eat after a workout.  Its nice to be able to just add a little water and hit a few buttons at those times.  One thing that seemed a little off to me though was the characterization of regular oatmeal as taking 10 minutes or so to cook.  Every one Ive ever used takes 5 minutes, including the standard-bearer,  Quaker Oats Old Fashioned Oatmeal.

  4. William Taylor (1 comments) says:

    Thank you for the info! I agree with Ms Trent, I will keep eating the instant, the time is more important than the difference in nutrition.

  5. Tina (2 comments) says:

    This is a great article and I appreciate the effort involved in compiling the information.

    I wonder what the GL levels of sweented, instant oatmeal would be?  I would have to imagine the vast majority of on-the-go people want something thats both good for them and tastes good.  Unsweetened oatmeal doesnt taste very good.

    So Im wondering what the breakdown of nutritional value would be and the  glycemic load for that packet of Maple and Brown Sugar oatmeal I eat every morning.

  6. Dan E. Carl (1 comments) says:

    Thank-you for such a complete and honest reply!  Ill stick with my old-fashioned.  I get to chew a little and I get to feel it going down.  The water boils while I shave (4 min) and it cooks while I dress (5 min).  I like mine with a few pieces of walnut, raisins, and a gob of smart balance light- 1% milk on the side.

  7. El CPT (1 comments) says:

    GREAT information, thank you for this article (and all the others, as well particularly the assessment of Cheerios).

    Currently deployed to Afghanistan, and healthy eating options are very limited here. Instant oatmeal is the only form readily available, so Im glad to know were not taking much of a nutritional hit.

  8. Debra Pike (1 comments) says:

    I use artificial sweetener in my plain instant oatmea. I actually eat it in the afernoons to avoid raiding the snack machine and it has helped so much. Wish I had thought of this a long time ago.

    The article is very good!!

  9. Donatello (1 comments) says:

    Great article!
    I add frozen blueberries or fresh strawberries to my unflavored instant oatmeal.  Even honey will sweeten it nicely.

  10. Dave Clear (1 comments) says:

    I eat oatmeal for breakfast every morning, its the best start to the day in terms of energy, nutrition and for firing up the system ready to take on the day. Nice article.

  11. Sam Boyer (1 comments) says:

    Want some good healthy recipes?

  12. Brian J (2 comments) says:

    Sascha I am a bigger guy and try to keep in shape so I eat two packs of the quaker instant oatmeal. I eat the maple brown sugar variety pack. I do not care for the unflavored oatmeal pack much either. I have tried using one unflavored pack and one flavored and I mix in frozen blue berries which helps sweeten it more and add great flavor. Also I noticed the unflavored packs have 2-3 times the iron and obviously less sugar than the flavored ones. This is my first day of mixing them and it tasted great!! You could take take 2 packs and do a 50/50 mixture?
    Or if you have favorite fruits or nuts, that might be enough sweetener for you with the plain oatmeal? Just a suggestionI found this article to be very helpful!! Thanks!

  13. Brian J (2 comments) says:

    Sorry people, I left my reply to sascha up at the Feb-2012 area Hopefully this helps someone.

  14. Traci (2 comments) says:

    This is a great and informative article. Thank you so much!!

  15. Gary (2 comments) says:

    I mix half a cup plain with a packet of flavored instant. (I find the flavored too sweet alone). Good compromise for me

  16. littlespanner (1 comments) says:

    Great Article..
    Clearing all my doubts for a good food for breakfast.
    I will stay with the regular, plain instant oatmeal.

  17. Shannon (1 comments) says:

    Well I have eaten instant oatmeal pretty much everyday since 2009The maple brown sugar and I havent had any problemsbut I am concerned because I just found out my son is in high risk for diabetes so I am watching his sugar intake..I had him eating oatmeal in the morning instead of poptarts or other unhealthy cereals. I wonder if I should have him eat the plain instead.

  18. Bob (6 comments) says:

    Great review.  Thank you, Matt.

  19. Victoria (4 comments) says:

    I enjoy my instant, plain oat meal mixed with a tsp of chia seeds, a few goji berries, a tsp of coconut oil, and .5 packet of stevia.  Thanks for the article!

  20. jaggedP (1 comments) says:

    Awesome article! Thanks for sharing it with us  I just have one question, Is the original instant oatmeal good or bad for people with Diabetes? I watching my sugar since both my families has a history of Diabetics.

    Im from the Philippines and as you know it, we eat every darn thing (3 meals a day) with white rice  Ive been aware of that so Im been avoiding it ever since. I only eat white rice (since its really hard to avoid it here) around 4-5 cups a week.

    I recently added oatmeal to my daily bfast. I eat it with an apple, an orange and a banana. I just wanna ask if I should stop eating instant oatmeal since Ive been avoiding rice and I just found out from your article that brown rice and instant oatmeal basically has the same glycmic load. I just want to know if im still on the right track. Thanks!

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