I can remember during the cold, winter months, waiting patiently for my mom to finish cooking up a pot of porridge on the stove for breakfast. She would put the porridge in a bowl and I would sprinkle it with a generous amount of brown sugar. When the brown sugar melted, I would pour cold milk on it to cool it down a little, and finally it was ready to eat. To be honest, I'm not quite sure it was the porridge that I liked, but rather the melted brown sugar on the top! Never the less, I have fond memories of eating porridge during my childhood.
While porridge does still exist, it seems that most people now call it oatmeal. If you want oatmeal for breakfast these days there is a variety of oats to choose from besides the rolled oats my mom made when I was growing up. As a consumer, it can be quite a challenge trying to decide which oats are best .
All oats go through the same initial stages of processing which includes cleaning, removing the hull, steaming and heating. The heating process stabilizes the healthy oils in oats so that they stay fresh longer. The remaining oat groats are then made into the different types of oats that you see in the grocery store.
Steel cut oats are oat groats (the inner kernel with the inedible hull removed) which have been chopped into 2-3 pieces with a sharp metal blade. They take the longest to cook compared to rolled or instant oats. They have a nutty flavour and are chewier, with an appearance similar to rice.
Rolled oats (old fashioned oats) are oat groats that have been steamed again before being rolled between two rotating cylinders to produce flatter, lighter flakes, and then dried. Rolled oats absorb water more rapidly, which decreases cooking time. They tend to hold their shape during cooking.
Quick (instant) oats are cut into small pieces before being steamed and then rolled into flakes that are thinner than rolled oats. The thinner the flake, the quicker the oats cook, therefore the cook time is less than for rolled oats. Quick oats tend to not have as much texture as rolled or steel cut oats and can end up mushy.
Instant oats in a package are the most processed and yield thin flakes that cook quickly and have less texture. The flavoured packages have added sugar and salt.
Regardless of the type of oats, they are all whole grains. A diet rich in whole grains may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and certain types of cancer. Oats also contain soluble fibre which lowers LDL or "bad" cholesterol and helps control blood sugars. Soluble fibre helps you feel full longer. This can help control your appetite and manage your weight. The insoluble fibre that is also in oats helps promote digestive health.
In addition to being a great source of vitamins such as thiamin, and minerals such as iron, oats also contain phytochemical's which may offer protection against certain types of diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
Both steel cut oats and rolled oats have a low glycemic index, which means they cause a slower increase in blood sugar after consumption. This is beneficial for people with pre-diabetes or diabetes. The degree of processing of foods is one of the factors that affects glycemic index. This would explain why steel cut oats have the lowest glycemic index and instant oatmeal has a much higher glycemic index and is therefore not the best choice for someone trying to control their blood sugars.
With the exception of flavoured instant oatmeal packages, it seems that you can't go wrong with whatever type of oats you choose. I really comes down to the flavour and texture that you enjoy and the amount of time that you have to prepare it.
These days I still enjoy a nice bowl of hot porridge, especially now that I know all of the nutritional benefits, however my brown sugar has been replaced with ground flax seed and berries. It's not quite the same, but still tastes good.