The Fat Diaries: McDonald’s Turns Oatmeal into Junk Food

February 25th, 2011 at 6:20 pm | 4 Comments |

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The world of fast-food breakfast has altered under our yellow sun. McDonald’s, in an effort to embrace the money of health-conscious individuals, has added oatmeal to its breakfast menu. It’s a strange little outlier from their current lineup of pancakes, sausage patties, and other high-calorie items like the infamous McGriddle. McDonald’s has met with both praise and censure over this move. Some have applauded the chain for caring about their customer’s health, but others aren’t impressed, like Mark Bittman of the New York Times.

In his article, “How to Make Oatmeal…Wrong,” he criticizes the move. Not only does he note that their oatmeal contains more sugar than a Snickers bar (14g of sugar) as well as a lot of ambiguous ingredients (the “cream” contains five ingredients that are not dairy based), he also thinks it’s a waste of valuable time and money.

“…in the time it takes to go into a McDonald’s, stand in line, order, wait, pay and leave, you could make oatmeal for four while taking your vitamins, brushing your teeth and half-unloading the dishwasher.”

Additionally, that oatmeal would cost mere pennies in comparison. I have lots of friends who eat oatmeal for an afternoon pickup snack. They make oatmeal in their break-room microwaves because it’s cheap, healthy and filling. Most use instant oatmeal packets (with a ton of extra sugar), but my husband actually keeps a supply of oats, sugar and powdered milk at work. The fact that people would actually go into a McDonald’s to get it is strange and foreign to me.

I go to McDonald’s (rarely at that) to get food I can’t get at home, like hash browns, or sausage patties or really good coffee. Why would anyone add the hassle of lines, ordering, and a drive-thru window to get something that’s dirt cheap and easy to make? I got a singular response from my friends when I asked them. They said, “Because McDonald’s oatmeal is freaking GOOD.”

I decided to stop speculating: I would investigate with a comparison taste test.

I make oatmeal by nuking it in the microwave, checking intermittently to make sure that it hasn’t exploded. I’m very bad at this so I’m generally wiping down the glass with a paper towel at the end (or I ask Joe to make it for me). Yup. I can make cordon bleu, but microwave oatmeal is still elusive. I didn’t actually like oatmeal until I was an adult, because I found the texture off-putting. It was far too mushy for me. Since then, I discovered that I like my oatmeal al dente. I like the chewy nuttiness of undercooked oats. This also means I use less water to make it (ka-boom!).

When the oatmeal’s cooked, I put in a sprinkle of sea salt and cinnamon, a splash of cream, and drizzle maple syrup on it. I don’t like terribly sweet oatmeal, so I use sparingly. I decided to make oatmeal like the McDonald’s version so I cut up an apple and sprinkled some golden raisins on it (I don’t like regular raisins). Cutting up the apple was a pain. I need new knives. I ate my version and wondered how McDonald’s could top this. It was already pretty good.

I got two kinds of McDonald’s oatmeal. I got the regular “default” maple fruit oatmeal with brown sugar, cream, apples, cranberries and two kinds of raisins (which I picked off). I also asked for the same with no brown sugar. It didn’t look very appealing at first. The fruit was sweating under the plastic lid, leaving a puddle of colored juice on the surface. Stealing my courage, I took a teensy bite of one. It was sweet…VERY sweet. But upon taking a bite of the other bowl, I groaned. My order had obviously been screwed up and they’d given me two sweetened oatmeals. There went my column this week. But upon taking a few more bites, I noticed that the second bowl, while sweet, was not nearly as sweet as the first.

So the unsweetened oatmeal already contained sugar before adding more brown sugar on top of it (or beneath it in a brown puddle as it turned out)? Lame! I finished the unsweetened oatmeal (I hadn’t had breakfast, and I was hungry), but had to stop with the other. It was just too sweet and there was also a strange fake aftertaste that bugged me. I decided to give my daughter a taste – she really likes oatmeal – but after she swallowed she made a face and walked off with theatrical retching.

I was disappointed. The oatmeal itself was pretty good, the texture wasn’t too mushy, the apple chunks were crisp and tasty, but the extra sugar in the unsweetened oatmeal made me feel a little sick afterward. I also couldn’t find any information on how many grams of sugar went into their unsweetened oatmeal, so I couldn’t say it’s really a much healthier option.

In his article, Bittman was concerned about the amount of sugar, but I decided another factor needed to be looked at: dietary fiber. Oatmeal’s wealth of important fiber is why most people eat oatmeal in the first place. While the McDonald’s oatmeal has 3g of dietary fiber and 14 g of sugar, homemade oatmeal has 4 g of dietary fiber and only 1 g of sugar (before adding your own). Even processed, flavored instant oatmeal has the same 3g of fiber, but has less sugar (12 grams) than McDonald’s! You’d frankly get as much fiber and far less sugar from eating a bowl of Cheerios (3g fiber, 1g sugar).

To play devil’s advocate, I can see the oatmeal as being the lesser of many evils. If I’m traveling on the road and I need to grab a breakfast from a fast-food restaurant, I like the idea that I can grab something healthier than an egg sandwich. If I’ve already been on the road for a day or so, the idea of something high in fiber would be even more appealing. I’d definitely opt for the no-extra-sugar version, but I’d like it even better if it wasn’t so sweet to begin with.

Considering that I rarely get to go to McDonald’s for breakfast in the first place, however, I’d probably get a sausage-egg McMuffin with a hash brown and coffee. It isn’t coated with sugar. Besides, I have oatmeal at home, and I make it the way I like it.

You can look at the nutritional statistics here and here.


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • zephae

    “To play devil’s advocate, I can see the oatmeal as being the lesser of many evils. If I’m traveling on the road and I need to grab a breakfast from a fast-food restaurant, I like the idea that I can grab something healthier than an egg sandwich.”

    That was pretty much my thinking the last time I went to McD’s for breakfast, but I just got hash browns anyway. I wish I could just get oatmeal with some milk and brown sugar when I’m in a rush without all the stupid extra crap. It’s already cheap, so is it really that much to ask?

  • JeninCT

    Even before the oatmeal, my kids and I were able to get a decent breakfast at Mickey D’s last summer when we were travelling. They had pancakes, fruit and yogurt, orange juice and this egg and cheese burrito-type thing that was pretty good.

  • kevin47

    A Snickers bar has 29g of sugar.

    McDonalds makes money featuring ingredients that appeal to health-conscious consumers (read: women) who accompany less health-conscious consumers (read: kids). People aren’t going to eat oatmeal unless it’s loaded with sugar because we grew up on sugary cereals.

    As such, to make it palatable, you need a bunch of frilly stuff, which requires a lot of sugar to mass produce.

  • mckathymc

    Read “Fast Food Nation,” and you will never enter a McDonald’s again.