Good Food Gone Bad — Oatmeal from the Golden Arches?

Posted in Susan Fekety on February 26th, 2011 by susanfekety
Unless otherwise noted, © Copyright 2011 by Susan Fekety. All Rights Reserved.

Last week I was a veritable bumblebee of public speaking — it was delicious, to meet so many new people at some of my favorite (and now NEW favorite) places. Here’s what I know — at these events, I learn as much as I share. This week was no exception — I feel my finger now rests more firmly on the pulse of the Real World.

After one of the talks (about using nutritional approaches to achieve natural hormone balance for women, where we dug pretty deeply into the powerful world of whole, minimally processed foods) one gal mentioned the new oatmeal initiative going on at McDonald’s. “Isn’t that great!?” was the consensus of the group.

Somehow, I felt suspicious. A whole food from the Darth Vader of food purveyors? I mean, don’t you just….React, simply to the name? Don’t you even…Resist, somehow, my use of the word “food” to refer to the stuff they sell? Milkshakes with no milk, etc?

I felt like the odd woman out, being less than enthusiastic. But I too have noticed the big signs advertising this new Healthy Feature at my least favorite food chain. The perennial optimist in me wondered — could things be starting to change, with the introduction of one simple food? Things can happen.

Clearly, investigation was required, and as you know, I live to serve. I started by pulling up the online nutrition information on the “bowl full of wholesome.” Three hundred calories in a serving that’s a little over a cup…hmmm. Thirty-two grams of sugars…eight teaspoons worth! (There are 4 grams of carbohydrate in a teaspoonful of sugar — it can be illuminating to do the math on things you might have in your larder right now!) Some ingredients I’d never heard of (”datem”? That would be Diacetyl Tartaric (Acid) Ester of Monoglyceride — a dough emulsifier — why would that be in a product that does not involve dough?) and others just clearly chemicals (sodium stearoyl lactate — which sounds to me like it should be in shampoo) — sketchy, as my sister would say. They did include oats, cream, milk, and apples, but the maple referred to in the name of the product I can only assume is a flavoring — there is no actual maple anything included. Just sugar sugar sugar.

Suddenly I started feeling sad. Remember having a nice bowl of oatmeal when you were a kid, on a cold winter morning? Even cooked from scratch in a pan, it didn’t take terribly long and it made such a nice smell and was so satisfying — for hours, it seemed. Big sigh…days gone by. I know, you’re tired of hearing it from me. But I think oats are one of the more beautiful grains.

Emotions now engaged, I was inspired towards experience. I swept into the drive-thru of the nearest McDonald’s, which appears to have a dedicated stoplight at its entrance — guess they get a lot of traffic. Guess what! It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon but I could still get oatmeal! It’s not just for breakfast any more! I paid a couple dollars for a little paper container with a plastic hat, containing probably four cents worth of oats: one serving for probably not much less than what you’d pay for a whole container of regular oatmeal to cook at home…but don’t get me started. It smelled excellent in the car.

Of course I had to eat it; figured it would be my midafternoon dessert. Oh, golly — this stuff was sweet beyond any concoction I think I would have made as a kid — certainly beyond anything I’d prepare now. Teeth-curlingly sweet. Apple bits, cinnamon, sweetened cranberries and raisins, all held together in a silken blend of datem and sodium stearoyl lactate with some actual cream. But you know, it felt right, was hot and chewy and satisfying…until I got to the bottom of the cup.

Oh. My. Goodness. Dry gobs of uncooked oatmeal — and even larger dry gobs of brown sugar. What I’d been eating didn’t even have all its allotted sugar stirred up into it! It was sort of like a sawdusty variant on “fruit at the bottom” yogurt. I didn’t finish it, and I plan to make a restorative, psychic trauma-eliminating pot of ordinary unsweetened oatmeal from scratch tomorrow morning for breakfast. Lovely fuel for shoveling and snowshoeing. Even with some berries stirred in, it’ll probably cost me less than a buck to feed several of us.

Executive summary? If you decide to try the oatmeal at McDonalds, harbor no illusions. It beats a burger or a McMuffin, but not by much; you want sugar, or you want toxic fat? I call this the “better than a sharp stick in the eye” option formulation, which is becoming increasingly prevalent of late. Be aware that you can ask for it without the brown sugar — I recommend doing that. You’ll save your pancreas some effort and I promise you, the food doesn’t need it. Those dried fruits contain plenty of sweet — enough for a whole day. But you could do worse, if you are thinking food on the fly, forgot to pack your own, and there’s no actual grocery store around.

ps: I spent the rest of the afternoon ruminating on our propensity as a culture to take a simple good food and fiddle with it till it’s no good anymore. (Reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw once, “If it’s not broken, fix it till it is.”) Today I had to go back to the market for something I’d forgotten, and found myself looking at the profusion of Greek yogurts available to me.

Not long ago you could only find this product in the health food store, but now that the yogurt people know we like it (in case you’ve never tried it, it has a yummy creamy texture like sour cream, even the reduced fat type; and it has a LOT more protein than regular yogurt), the most giant food companies are offering versions of their own. Although there are some pretty arcane flavors available, with Greek yogurt you still want to get the plain kind and doctor it yourself (moi, I favor some chopped up apples and walnuts, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and a splash of vanilla extract.) Ambrosia!

But — here we go again with a good food gone bad, just like the oatmeal phenom.

Not to single anyone out, but a quick random grab in my dairy case reveals that Yoplait now makes a Greek yogurt product — which is (surprise, surprise) astonishingly high in sugar. It has sprinkly bits on top, and the yogurt itself is sweetened. (I bought a container of the peach stuff for educational purposes, but not to eat — I dare not, as I’m still trying to recover from the oatmeal.) In a 6 oz container of nonfat YoCrunch there are 31 grams of carbohydrate; twenty of them are from added sugars (the equivalent of FIVE teaspoons) and the rest are from the lactose (milk sugar) in the yogurt. All this, in a smaller -than-a-cup container of what was one a lovely simple traditional food. It’s enough to make an old-fashioned girl like me have to wipe away a tear.

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