It’s no secret that cows are losing their monopoly on milk. The options for non-dairy alternative milks are virtually unending: From almond milk and peanut milk to hemp, soy, cashew and rice milk, there are as many plant-based milk options as there are ways to order a drink at Starbucks.
Oat milk is the prized alt-milk of the moment. Trendy coffee shops, chain grocers and even some Starbucks retailers are serving the milk alternative for eager consumers who can’t resist the next big milk-like thing. But is the juice (of oats, in this case) really worth the squeeze?
Traditional oat milk is made in a way that’s similar to the process of making homemade versions of almond or other nut milks — oats are soaked in water, blended and then strained for the “milk” part, while the bulk of the oats’ nutrients are lost in the leftover pulp. Oatly, a Swedish oat milk company that launched in the U.S. in 2016, has a different process — and this is important, because it impacts the thickness and texture of the drink.
Rather than “milked oats,” Oatly produces liquified oats. “We actually liquify the oats using a special enzymatic process,” U.S. general manager Mike Messersmith said, explaining that the nutritional benefits of the oats — which include a bit of fiber, healthy fat and protein — are retained in the beverage. The fact that the beverage is liquified oats, not oat water, is what makes it slightly higher in calories than unsweetened almond milk.
Plant-based milks may seem like they’d inherently be better for the planet, especially compared to conventional options — but a fair amount has been written about the incredible amount of resources required to make almond milk, revealing that plant-based doesn’t necessarily equate with eco-conscious.
Oatly’s process requires oat kernels to be removed from their hulls, which don’t make it into the final product. To make use of the waste, Oatly works with local partners to divert the hulls to farms and biogas facilities “to offset the impact of the manufacturing footprint,” Messersmith said. In North America, the production residue is used as a part of fertilizer growth and animal feed.
When the brand first launched in Sweden more than 25 years ago, it was done to provide a more sustainable option that’s gentler on the planet compared to traditional dairy milk. The Swedes kept buying it for the taste, and now it’s gaining some major fans in the U.S.
“The connectivity of the coffee community and the barista community is really what drove that rapid growth for us,” Messersmith said. Oatly has been around stateside for fewer than two years, but is available in more than 500 grocery stores nationwide and 1,000 coffee shops across the country. You’ll find it in New York and Los Angeles, but also Arkansas, Milwaukee, Indiana and Montana, said Messersmith.
At the One World Commons cafe in Manhattan’s World Trade Center, where Mic’s offices are located, a box of Oatly is displayed proudly at the front of the register. “It’s so popular here, it’s our number one non-dairy here,” Juanise Allen, a barista at the shop said confirming that at World Commons, oat milk is more popular than almond milk.
“It’s the closest to whole milk for me, because of the consistency,” she said. For baristas, the product is seemingly the prized non-dairy alternative because of its thickness and ability to foam — its creamy frothiness, which comes from a “little bit of manufacturing expertise,” according to Messersmith, is what enables the oat milk cappuccino to be just as satisfying as a conventional milk one. (An almond milk cappuccino, on the other hand, isn’t worth writing about.)
“People are usually not expecting it to be as creamy and as flavorful as it is,” a barista at Joe Coffee explained. “It actually goes really great with espresso, it steams very well, it does stay very creamy,” said the barista, who declined to share her name. This barista also mentioned that the product is GMO-free, which she said appeals to soy milk drinkers.
As a non-dairy, vegan and gluten-free milk alternative, oat milk has appeal for anyone with a specialized diet — and beyond. “Five or 10 years ago, a lot of the products in this [milk alternative] category felt like they were there in a purely tactical and functional basis,” Messersmith said. “And people are choosing these products now not because they have to, but because they want to. It’s not just a functional dietary product any more.”
It’s true that the quality and quantity of plant-based milks are surging; in the past five years, non-dairy milk sales have grown 61%, exceeding $2 billion in 2017. A New York dairy empire called Elmhurst that’s been around since the 1920s recently shifted to producing plant-based milks exclusively; it also has an oat-based option. Research from Mintel shows that 90% of non-dairy milk consumers also purchase dairy milk, which suggests that people are drinking the dairy-free stuff for reasons other than a lactose allergy or a vegan practice. And that, Messersmith said, is what’s driving these plant-based offerings to be better. “Those consumers have higher expectations; it’s not just enough to be there for an average dairy alternative. You have to have something that has great taste, great nutrition, great ingredients.”
Anyone who lived through the ‘90s with a dairy intolerance will tell you that the options have exponentially improved. Way back when, rice milk was virtually the only option for adding “milk” to cereal, and it wasn’t pretty. The increase in non-dairy milks might just be one of the few silver linings to come out of our overbearing wellness-driven zeitgeist.