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(Cathy Yeulet/Getty Images/Hemera)
(Cathy Yeulet/Getty Images/Hemera)

Ask a health expert

Is instant oatmeal really that bad? Add to ...

The question

For time and convenience, I often have instant oatmeal for breakfast or morning snack. Am I missing out on the benefits of oatmeal by having the instant oatmeal versus the regular oatmeal? What are the differences?

The answer

All types of oatmeal are a great source of soluble fibre, which lowers elevated blood cholesterol. Oats are also a good source of vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and vitamin E whether they're instant, quick cook, large flake or steel cut. But that's where the similarities stop.

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All oats start out as oat groats, the whole grain of the oat, with only the outer hard husk removed. The degree to which oats have been processed determines how long they need to be cooked.

Steel-cut oats are whole oat groats that have been chopped into two or three pieces. They require more time to cook than other oats. Rolled oats (old fashioned oats) are oat groats that have been steamed, rolled and flaked for easier cooking.

Quick cooking oats are rolled oats that have been chopped into small flakes and take only three to four minutes to cook. Instant oats are basically powdered oats and take literally no time to cook.

Although they're convenient, most brands of instant oatmeal have added salt and sugar. Look for a brand that's low in sugar - ideally unflavoured or no added sugar - and low in sodium.

Choose brands that contain less than 6 grams of sugar and no more than 250 milligrams of sodium per serving (1 pouch). You can find some products today that are both sugar and sodium free. I recommend these over others.

The other difference between instant and large flake or steel cut oats is the glycemic index. The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly a carbohydrate-rich food raises your blood glucose level. Foods with a high glycemic index, such as sugar, white bread and white rice, raise your blood sugar quickly and cause your pancreas to release more of the blood sugar clearing hormone insulin.

Studies show that a diet based on high glycemic food is linked with a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Low glycemic foods - including large flake and steel cut oats - raise your blood sugar gradually and therefore don't cause spikes in insulin. A low glycemic diet may help guard against type 2 diabetes, and possibly colon and breast cancers.

Since instant oats are processed to a greater degree than large flake oats, your body digests them more quickly and they cause your blood glucose to rise faster. As a result, they are not a low glycemic food. Instead they have a medium glycemic index.

Send dietitian Leslie Beck your questions at dietitian@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Leslie Beck.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Follow on Twitter: @lesliebeckrd

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