America loves oatmeal—and that's a good thing, because oatmeal is a whole grain that's high in fiber and low in sugar and sodium. "I personally love oatmeal for its benefits and also its versatility," says Sarah Keathley MS, RD, LD, a dietitian with Top Nutrition. "It serves as a perfect base for your dish, allowing you to add a wide variety of ingredients (think healthy fats and lean protein) to make it a fully balanced meal."
But if you're buying packaged flavored oatmeal, you might not get all the benefits of this naturally nutritious breakfast. "When shopping for ready-to-eat oatmeal, it is important to look at the fiber, sodium, and especially the sugar content," says Melissa Galich, RD, CD, a dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching. While strawberries and cream and maple brown sugar oatmeal sound like a delicious way to start your day, these flavored oatmeals are often loaded with added sugars and sodium.
Below, Keathley and Galich share what to look for in a brand to get the most out of your bowl of oats.
How to Choose a Healthy Oatmeal
- Look for fiber: Choose an oatmeal brand that offers at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. "Oatmeal on its own contains soluble fiber, which keeps you fuller longer, aids in better digestion, and is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, which is your body's main source of energy," Keathley says.
- Limit the added sugars: Galich recommends choosing an oatmeal with less than 10 grams of sugar. "Sugar itself has no nutritional value, and excess intake can lead to increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiovascular disease, and increased chronic inflammation," she says. The American Heart Association recommends daily sugar intake of no more than 36 grams for men, and 25 grams for women, so choosing a plain or low-sugar oatmeal can help you avoid exceeding these numbers.
- Look for low sodium: Some flavored oatmeals can pack on the sodium, and most of us consume more than double the recommended daily sodium intake, according to the World Health Organization. Galich recommends choosing a brand with less than 200 milligrams of sodium per serving.
Now that you know what to look for, read on for 10 of the unhealthiest instant oatmeals to leave on the shelf next time you're at the grocery store. Then, grab a carton of plain whole-grain oats and meal prep some of these 51 Healthy Overnight Oats Recipes for Weight Loss.
Quaker Real Medleys Apple Walnut Oatmeal Cup
Oats, apples, and walnuts are all nutrient-dense ingredients in their natural form. But when combined in this oatmeal cup and its 17 grams of added sugar, this breakfast starts resembling dessert. "This product is almost a full day's serving of sugar for women and has a higher sodium content than recommended," Galich says. "High sodium intake can increase the risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke." For a healthier (yet still tasty!) alternative, try mixing half a cup of plain oats with chopped apples and walnuts along with vanilla protein powder or Greek yogurt for added protein, and a dusting of cinnamon on top.
Good & Gather Organic Apple Cinnamon Instant Oatmeal Cup
Galich gives this apple cinnamon oatmeal cup the red light because of its sky-high sugar content. "It provides almost a full day's worth of sugar for women and over half for men." To put things into perspective even more, this apple cinnamon oatmeal cup packs the same amount of sugar as ¾ cup of vanilla ice cream. If you wouldn't spoon into a tub of ice cream for breakfast on the regular, you're better off skipping this spiced instant oatmeal.
Nature's Path Organic Instant Apple Cinnamon Instant Oatmeal
Nature's Path claims this instant oatmeal is "packed full of fiber and plant protein," but the nutrition label indicates otherwise. "There's only a small amount of actual fiber and protein but a large amount of added sugars—around half of our daily recommended intake of added sugars," Keathley points out. "Research tells us that a diet high in added sugars has been linked to obesity, diabetes, heart and liver diseases, and even cancer and dementia."
Share Good Foods Blueberry Cobbler Oatmeal
Oatmeal that tastes like blueberry cobbler might sound delightful, but it's almost as caloric and sugary as the actual dessert. "This oatmeal provides over half the daily recommended sugar intake for both men and women, and it also has a higher sodium content," Galich tells us. Instead, use plain oats as your base and add in frozen blueberries and egg whites before cooking—"trust me you cannot taste the egg whites and it makes the oats extra fluffy," Keathley says. The blueberries will provide some natural sweetness while the egg whites add protein, which will help you stay satiated throughout your morning and curb cravings.
Quaker Maple Brown Sugar Instant Oats
The flavor alone should give you a hint that this packaged instant oatmeal is high in sugar. It contains 12 grams of added sugar, which means you'll take in almost half your daily maximum recommended amount just at breakfast. "And while the package claims that this is a good source of fiber, in reality, we need much more for our body than what is offered per serving on the nutrition label to make an impact on our health," Keathley says. "The American Heart Association Eating Plan suggests eating a total dietary fiber intake of 25 to 30 grams a day from food, not supplements."
Good & Gather Organic Maple Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal
We commend Good & Gather for using organic oats in their ready-to-eat hot cereal, but we would've liked this option to be lower in sugar. "Avoid products that have sugar listed as the first or second ingredient, as the list of ingredients goes by weight," Keathley recommends. This oatmeal's second and third ingredients are cane sugar and maple sugar, which means sugar is the second most abundant ingredient in the product as a whole.
"Although sugar can be a part of a well-balanced diet, we are looking for a balance of healthy fats, fiber, and protein at the same time," Keathley says. "This product has enough sugar that still makes up a third to a half of the recommended daily sugar intake for men and women."
O Organics Instant Maple Brown Sugar Oatmeal
While this organic maple brown sugar oatmeal is not the absolute worst of the worst, you can do better. "Overall this product meets all recommended nutrition points other than its sugar content," Galich says. But the added sugar situation is what most of these oatmeals get wrong. "At 12 grams per serving, it provides a third to a half of a person's recommended sugar intake in just one serving." The sugar in this Safeway-brand oatmeal comes from two sources: organic cane sugar and maple sugar.
Signature Select Brown Sugar Oatmeal
The second ingredient listed in this oatmeal is added sugars, which skyrockets the total sugar content here to a third to a half of the total daily recommended intake for men and women, respectively. Not only that, but the sodium is higher than we'd like, coming in at 260 milligrams or 11 percent of your daily value. Also worth noting: Take a peek at the ingredient list, and you'll spot "natural flavors" listed. Natural flavors are still chemical additives—in reality, "natural flavors" need to be labeled correctly, as they can contain both artificial and synthetic chemicals often used as processing aids, Keathley says.
Great Value Maple & Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal
Much like most maple brown sugar oatmeals on the market, this one from Great Value contains sodium and sugar contents that are higher than dietitians would recommend in oatmeal. "Oatmeal naturally is a heart-healthy food but adding salt and sugar can take away from some of its nutritional benefits," Galich says.
Better Oats Steel Cut Instant Oatmeal, Maple & Brown Sugar
This oatmeal doesn't quite live up to its name. "The steel cut label does not always mean 'better,'" Keathley tells us. "The added ingredients are what we are looking at in a product, and all cuts of oats (instant, steel, old-fashioned) have the same nutritional value," she says. Still, this oatmeal is high in added sugars. The better option: Sweeten plain oats with fresh or frozen fruit and add a tablespoon of nut butter, nuts, or seeds (such as chia, flax, pumpkin, or hemp) for added protein and healthy fats.