it’s not about the oatmeal

Mark Bittman seems to have read a few pages from Michael Pollan’s book (or books). Although ostensibly Bittman has always been a proponent of eating “real” food (which is to say minimally processed [or completely unprocessed]), his newest column in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times has him sounding more like Pollan and less like himself. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with this; I imagine that after years, decades, of writing his Minimalist column he was ready for bigger things- certainly for different things- and I welcome Bittman’s opinion on just about anything. Plus, he’s always had a little of that “Pollan streak” in him anyway(see his TED talk as exhibit A).
But it’s Bittman’s recent critique of McDonald’s newest breakfast offering (oatmeal) that I’d like to talk about. There are many aspects of his column that I agree with: oatmeal has been wholly abused by industry trying to improve on something that really needs no improvement; that it is unnecessarily sweet (with 32 grams of sugar!) and loaded with calories (as Bittman points out, 10 fewer calories than a cheeseburger); and that it really doesn’t matter to McDonald’s if you buy, or even like, their oatmeal… what matters is that they get you in the door.

And that’s where the illusion of healthfulness is particularly dangerous, in my opinion. McDonald’s (and they are being vilified here, but all food companies are the same) needs you to want their product over their competitors.  So, in this age of health consciousness, they create a product that makes you feel as if you’re doing something good for yourself (I suspect that most people would tell you they have heard that a bowl of oatmeal is a “healthy breakfast”). A customer will buy said oatmeal and either like like it or not. If they like it, they  will continue eating a breakfast that is not particularly healthy and probably continue to experience the same sharp declines in energy (because of the precipitous drop in sugar levels after eating the oatmeal), weight gain (because of all the calories), or other adverse health complications and then give up on the whole idea of oatmeal because “it’s not doing me any good and why not just have an Egg McMuffin?” If they don’t particularly like it, well, then they will go back to eating their Egg McMuffin and think “Oatmeal tastes terrible, why would I ever want to eat that?” Either way, the future is bleak.

I realize I’m being a bit melodramatic. But maybe not.

What about kids who are taken to McDonald’s and given oatmeal (what kid wouldn’t love being able to dump things [dried fruit and nuts and brown sugar] into their cereal before eating it)? Again, their parents are told they are doing something good for their children (“We offer oatmeal. Oatmeal is a healthy way to start the day”), but those kids end up learning that oatmeal tastes the way McDonald’s prepares it- [sickly?] sweet. Not only might this have long-term consequences for their ability to ever have a plain bowl of oatmeal, but there is some evidence to suggest that the more sweetness we are exposed to the more habituated we become and the more we need to satisfy those sweet cravings. (Our preference for sweet tastes evolved in ancestral times, when survival depended on being able to identify the flavor [berries would have provided crucial micronutrients], and do not seem capable of dealing with modern environments saturated with available sugars.) What’s more, an extensive body of research suggests that eating (what, when, how much) is a learned behavior, with long-term patterns modeled after our primary caregivers and highly influenced by the hedonic experience of food. Even more frightening is the fact that (at least in animal models) flavor-nutrient prefrence learning begins before weaning- so what happens when the nutrient piece of the “flavor-nutrient learning” is removed and those highly flavorful food items no longer indicate nutrient rich foods? What then?

In the end, my concern is not that McDonald’s offers oatmeal. Food companies and restaurants are not going anywhere, and if we are really going to make a difference in the dietary habits of Americans we need to engage them in the process of providing healthier, lower cost, dining options. We have to. No, my concern is that McDonald’s is offering this particular oatmeal (when pressed about their use of cream rather than skim milk (or even half-and-half) or over 150 calories from brown sugar (not to mention the fact that there are 21 ingredients in this concoction- many of them chemical), McDonald’s responded that people can order it without the cream. Or the sugar. Or the fruit or nuts. “You can ‘Have it Your Way’,” they replied). As with most things, people will take the path of least resistance; why not make the default offer the healthier option?

As a side note: Other “oatmeal” options are not immune to this problem. Take Starbucks for example. A search of their nutritional information (separately for each item) revealed that a bowl of their Starbucks Perfect Oatmeal contained 140 calories, 4 grams of fiber, zero grams of sugar and a whopping 14 ingredients. But when you order Starbucks Perfect Oatmeal you don’t get just oatmeal: with the  Brown Sugar, Dried Fruit, and Nut Medley Topping your breakfast will provide 390 calories, 6 grams of fiber, 33 grams of sugar, and 11 grams of fat (mostly from nuts). Not exactly the paragon of a healthy breakfast either. At least at McDonald’s you can get this nutritional information all in one place. At least that’s something.

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2 thoughts on “it’s not about the oatmeal

  1. So…IS there a quick, relatively healthy option that you know of? Like when you’re on a long road trip and you aren’t about to be packing a cooler but you need some lunch? We do Subway sometimes, and just order a bunch of extra veggies on our subs to give to the little girl. I’m curious what you do.
    And I also have to comment that this kind of stuff *should* be sort of goes-without-saying. It amazes me that people don’t just assume that fast food (especially if it tastes surprisingly good–like super-sweet, super-rich oatmeal) is not good for you, or that if you give your kid the option, he/she will begin to choose the bad-for-you stuff over the good-for-you stuff because it’s got all that other stuff in it that makes it extra tasty, and therefore bad for you.
    Finally (sorry–you got me going here), you know how they say something about Starbucks does something to their coffee beans that makes them extra addictive? I always wonder when we’ll find out that something like that goes on with all sorts of other stuff we buy for and consume with our kids.

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    1. Such a good question; and I think it’s unfortunate that the answer is no, without packing your own food and when you’re on the road it is very very difficult to eat well. I think you’re doing exactly what you should be though, making the best choices given what’s available and finding ways to make what is available a little healthier (like getting extra veggies). I tend to look for fresh fruit, yogurt, nuts and cheese at places like convenient stores, but sometimes that’s just not enough. And unless you packed a pantry full of foods, you are likely to find yourself with a hungry (or picky and hungry) toddler.
      Mostly I wish that options that claim to be healthier (at places like McDonald’s or Starbucks) actually were [somewhat] healthy. The fact that they are not makes making a decision all the more difficult. And I agree- some of these things seem like then should be intuitive; I wonder how many people just actually don’t give it one second of thought. I think it’s probably a large number.
      As to your last point, consipiracy theorists would completely agree (and i might even a little too). All that “stuff” that is put in our foods…what is it? Why is it in there? How are our bodies using these things, and changing as a result of them? And not just for our kids, but ourselves. And it’s not just food; ever walk into a place like Toys ‘R Us or Babies ‘R us or Target for that matter and try to find a wooden toy that is either (a) not painted or (b) painted with natural dyes?
      Okay, so now I’m off topic. Thanks for the comment Monica….good stuff!

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