Chew On This: Eat Your Heart Out, Quaker Oats

Greetings, Herald readers. Your food columnists, Sam and Allegra, would like to introduce the new title for Thursday’s food column. Don’t worry, the column will still appear on Thursdays and will still be composed of pretty much the best food writing around. So without further ado…Chew On This! 

Everyone has a different idea of what constitutes “comfort food,” and why. For some, it is mom’s green bean casserole. For others, that childhood and (let’s face it) adulthood favorite, is mac ‘n cheese. Still others might find their peace in a good chili cheese dog. But whether it evokes nostalgia of home, tastes like grandma’s cooking or simply makes your tummy warm on a cold winter day, comfort food always makes us feel good about ourselves.

For me, oatmeal is one of the quintessential comfort foods. Making myself a bowl calls up memories of dad perfecting his water-to-oats ratio on frigid mornings at home, hoping for the best kinds to appear in our pantry (dinosaur eggs, what up), and disappointment at the boring kinds. (Maple & brown sugar again? Please.)

From Kraft pushing its mac ‘n cheese at adults with its “you know you love it” campaign to Pepsi’s “throwback” marketing scheme, food marketers across the board are striving to connect with consumers like me, playing off those beloved childhood memories.

Combine oatmeal’s nostalgic appeal with its widely-touted cholesterol-lowering health benefits, and you have a food just begging to be picked up by mainstream restaurants. In fact, they have. Many big chains have added the beloved breakfast dish to their menus in recent years. 

But who does it right? Who can conjure up those mornings at the breakfast table? In order to weed out the comforting from the counterfeit, I tried out oatmeal from three different big-name chains here in Madison: McDonald’s, Starbucks and Jamba Juice.

McDonald’s: Fruit & Maple Oatmeal

I was pleased with the size (9.2 oz.) of the cup – it was a large quantity which filled me up amply for the price. The oatmeal itself wasn’t as sickly-looking as I expected it to be, with bright red chunks of apple and purple raisins sprinkled commendably throughout the bowl. Though one could detect a hint of underlying maple flavor near the bottom of the cup, I don’t know that it was strong enough for the designation “Fruit & Maple Oatmeal.” The experience as a whole wasn’t spectacular, but it was better than I expected out of the underbelly of the fast food world.

Price: $1.99

Overall Taste: Background of tasteless oats underscored with a faint maple flavor, salvaged by the bright chunks of apple and pockets of raisin sweetness. Those who don’t need their oatmeal sickly-sweet will like this product.

Starbucks: Perfect Oatmeal

Creativity and personalization dominates the Starbucks oatmeal experience. The oatmeal cup comes with packets of brown sugar, sliced almonds and dried fruit (raisins and cranberries) so you can create your “perfect oatmeal.” I’ll warn you right now: You better perfect that oatmeal. You better perfect that whole package of brown sugar and that whole packet of fruit, because without it, it is tasteless and awful. 

Once the brown sugar went into it, however, it tasted amazing – better than McDonald’s, and with a smoother texture. The calorie content is also printed on the front of each packet – a convenience I’m positive many health nuts appreciate.

Price: $2.45

Overall Taste: Without the nuts, fruit and sugar it was tasteless and boring, but miles more flavorful and satisfying when the additions are included. Don’t like almonds? No problem. Additions also come in self-serving packets so you can add to suit your taste.

Jamba Juice: Steel-Cut Oatmeal

According to Wikipedia, “steel-cut oats” are groats (the inner portion of the oat kernel) that have been cut into two or three pieces by steel rather than being rolled. I’m not sure exactly what that means in terms of quality, but I can tell you Jamba Juice’s oatmeal was well worth the extra cents. 

It came hot with a generous portion of banana slices and brown sugar on top. As with Starbucks’ fare, the oats were lumpy and tasteless without the sugar. Add in the sugar and banana, however, and the cup is transformed into a decidedly heartwarming blend of flavors. Compared to McDonald’s, the oats didn’t stand up as well on their own, and Jamba Juice’s single paper cup was less ornate than Starbucks’s individual topping packages. However, the thick oats, clumpy brown sugar and fresh cuts of banana rendered this oatmeal dish the most pleasing of the bunch.

In addition to banana, Jamba also offers berry cherry pecan, apple cinnamon, blueberry & blackberry, and “just brown sugar” flavors.

Price: $3.11

Overall Taste: Fresh, natural and organic – this oatmeal is everything Jamba Juice promises, and everything Starbucks and McDonald’s aspire to be.

Side Dish: