An illustration of an oatmeal cup superimposed on a photograph of oatmeal

The most important attributes when choosing a breakfast are that it’s healthy and quick to prepare, according to a 2020 survey from the market research firm Mintel.

Single-serve oatmeal cups—most just require adding hot water or a zap in the microwave—satisfy the need for a speedy breakfast and also seem like a healthy choice, touting whole grains or “superfood oats.” But do you sacrifice nutritional benefits when you opt for instant oats over longer-cooked ones? After evaluating 24 cups from popular brands, our experts have tips on what to look for on the label before you pop the top.

Note the Kind of Oats
All types of oats are whole grains. Instant oats are processed into thinner flakes than steel cut or rolled oats, which means they're digested more quickly and can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels. Look for brands that specify steel cut or rolled oats on the package, such as Better Oats Steel Cut Maple & Brown Sugar Cup and Nature’s Path Organic Hot Oatmeal Maple Pecan.

More on Healthy Eating

Check for Added Sugars
The amount of added sugars in your cup matters more than the type of sugar it contains. Coconut sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, or maple sugar may sound healthier than plain table sugar, but they offer no health advantages. And 10 of the 24 oatmeal cups we looked at had a whopping 10 to 18 grams of added sugars—that’s 2½ to 4½ teaspoons. Three of the cups contained no added sugars (such as the Mush and RXBar RX A.M. cups shown below). But if you like a little sweetness, pick a cup that has no more than 9 grams per serving.

Scrutinize the Ingredients List
Think twice about picking a product with pea protein, soy protein isolate, or chicory root fiber. Those are highly processed ingredients, and it’s better to get nutrients from whole foods. Instead, check the label for healthy boosts such as additional whole grains. For instance, Purely Elizabeth's cup contains amaranth and quinoa, as well as nuts and seeds, which add fiber, and healthy fats.

Below are the oatmeal cups we evaluated, divided into "healthier choices" and "others in our tests," and listed alphabetically by product name within each category.

Healthier Choices
Mush Overnight
Oats Apple Pie
  • Calories   230
  • Total fat    8 g
  • Saturated fat    1 g
  • Carbohydrates    34 g
  • Added sugars    0 g
  • Fiber   5 g
  • Protein   7 g
  • Sodium   110 mg
Nature's Path Organic Hot Oatmeal Maple Pecan
  • Calories   220
  • Total fat    6 g
  • Saturated fat    1 g
  • Carbohydrates    36 g
  • Added sugars    8 g
  • Fiber   6 g
  • Protein   7 g
  • Sodium   105 mg
Purely Elizabeth Apple Cinnamon Pecan Superfood Oats
  • Calories   230
  • Total fat    7 g
  • Saturated fat    2 g
  • Carbohydrates    37 g
  • Added sugars    3 g
  • Fiber   6 g
  • Protein   7 g
  • Sodium   65 mg
Real Made Apple & Coconut Overnight Oats
  • Calories   235
  • Total fat    6 g
  • Saturated fat    2.5 g
  • Carbohydrates    42 g
  • Added sugars    0 g
  • Fiber   7 g
  • Protein   5 g
  • Sodium   5 mg
RX A.M. Maple Oats
  • Calories   250
  • Total fat    8 g
  • Saturated fat    1 g
  • Carbohydrates    35 g
  • Added sugars    0 g
  • Fiber   6 g
  • Protein   12 g
  • Sodium   95 mg
Soulfull Brown Sugar Pecan Multigrain Hot Cereal Cups
  • Calories   300
  • Total fat    12 g
  • Saturated fat    1.5 g
  • Carbohydrates    40 g
  • Added sugars    na
  • Fiber   6 g
  • Protein   7 g
  • Sodium   160 mg
The GFB Gluten Free Oatmeal Maple Raisin
  • Calories   240
  • Total fat    7 g
  • Saturated fat    1 g
  • Carbohydrates    35 g
  • Added sugars    7 g
  • Fiber   5 g
  • Protein   10 g
  • Sodium   160 mg
Others in Our Tests
Better Oats Steel Cut
Maple & Brown Sugar
  • Calories   210
  • Total fat    3.5 g
  • Saturated fat    1 g
  • Carbohydrates    40 g
  • Added sugars    13 g
  • Fiber   4 g
  • Protein   5 g
  • Sodium   270 mg
Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free Brown Sugar & Maple Oatmeal Cup
  • Calories   240
  • Total fat    5 g
  • Saturated fat    1 g
  • Carbohydrates    42 g
  • Added sugars    9 g
  • Fiber   7 g
  • Protein   7 g
  • Sodium   310 mg
Brekki Overnight Oats Apples & Cinnamon
  • Calories   220
  • Total fat    8 g
  • Saturated fat    1 g
  • Carbohydrates    30 g
  • Added sugars    10 g
  • Fiber   4 g
  • Protein   6 g
  • Sodium   90 mg
Dave's Naturals Overnight Oats Cinnamon Raisin
  • Calories   220
  • Total fat    3.5 g
  • Saturated fat    0.5 g
  • Carbohydrates    43 g
  • Added sugars    11 g
  • Fiber   6 g
  • Protein   8 g
  • Sodium   80 mg
Del Monte Oats To Go Maple & Brown Sugar Crunch
  • Calories   270
  • Total fat    8 g
  • Saturated fat    1 g
  • Carbohydrates    40 g
  • Added sugars    8 g
  • Fiber   7 g
  • Protein   10 g
  • Sodium   240 mg
Del Monte Fruit & Oats Apple Cinnamon
  • Calories   180
  • Total fat    2.5 g
  • Saturated fat    0 g
  • Carbohydrates    36 g
  • Added sugars    9 g
  • Fiber   4 g
  • Protein   4 g
  • Sodium   220 mg
Ernest Eats Superfood Oatmeal Maple + Almond + Cinnamon
  • Calories   250
  • Total fat    8 g
  • Saturated fat    1 g
  • Carbohydrates    37 g
  • Added sugars    na
  • Fiber   5 g
  • Protein   8 g
  • Sodium   85 mg
Kodiak Cakes Power Cup Maple & Brown Sugar
  • Calories   230
  • Total fat    3 g
  • Saturated fat    0.5 g
  • Carbohydrates    37 g
  • Added sugars    12 g
  • Fiber   4 g
  • Protein   14 g
  • Sodium   200 mg
Love Grown Apple Cinnamon
  • Calories   240
  • Total fat    3 g
  • Saturated fat    0.5 g
  • Carbohydrates    47 g
  • Added sugars    11 g
  • Fiber   5 g
  • Protein   6 g
  • Sodium   10 mg
McCann's Quick & Easy Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal Maple Brown Sugar
  • Calories   200
  • Total fat    1 g
  • Saturated fat    0 g
  • Carbohydrates    44 g
  • Added sugars    18 g
  • Fiber   3 g
  • Protein   4 g
  • Sodium   340 mg
Modern Oats Vermont Maple Premium Oatmeal
  • Calories   230
  • Total fat    4.5 g
  • Saturated fat    0.5 g
  • Carbohydrates    43 g
  • Added sugars    12 g
  • Fiber   5 g
  • Protein   7 g
  • Sodium   0 mg
Quaker Real Medleys Super Grains Maple Pecan Raisin
  • Calories   330
  • Total fat    7 g
  • Saturated fat    1 g
  • Carbohydrates    48 g
  • Added sugars    10 g
  • Fiber   5 g
  • Protein   6 g
  • Sodium   230 mg
Quaker Overnight Oats Raisin Walnut Honey
  • Calories   330*
  • Total fat    9 g
  • Saturated fat    1 g
  • Carbohydrates    55 g
  • Added sugars    10 g
  • Fiber   5 g
  • Protein   9 g
  • Sodium   190 mg
Quaker Instant Oatmeal Cups Lower Sugar 50% Less Sugar Cinnamon & Pecan
  • Calories   160
  • Total fat    5 g
  • Saturated fat    1 g
  • Carbohydrates    26 g
  • Added sugars    5 g
  • Fiber   3 g
  • Protein   4 g
  • Sodium   135 mg
Quaker Instant Oatmeal Cups Maple & Brown Sugar
  • Calories   180
  • Total fat    2.5 g
  • Saturated fat    0.5 g
  • Carbohydrates    37 g
  • Added sugars    14 g
  • Fiber   3 g
  • Protein   4 g
  • Sodium   290 mg
Think Thin Protein & Probiotics Hot Oatmeal Maple Pecan
  • Calories   200
  • Total fat    4 g
  • Saturated fat    0.5 g
  • Carbohydrates    35 g
  • Added sugars    9 g
  • Fiber   6 g
  • Protein   10 g
  • Sodium   210 mg
Trader Joe's Organic Maple Brown Sugar Oatmeal
  • Calories   220
  • Total fat    3.5 g
  • Saturated fat    0.5 g
  • Carbohydrates    41 g
  • Added sugars    7 g
  • Fiber   5 g
  • Protein   6 g
  • Sodium   200 mg
* Made with 1/2 cup skim milk.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the January 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.