Oat milk: the next best thing?
I recently read an article from Mother Jones highlighting current market trends in the nondairy milk industry – plant-based milk substitutes. These milks target consumers who prefer nondairy products or who might be lactose intolerant. According to market research by Mintel, sales of nondairy milk have increased 61% from 2012 to 2017, showing a strong growing interest from consumers. Ever the favorite, almond milk makes up 64% of the market. Seeing this growth as a threat, cow-based milk groups have brought lawsuits against these alternative milk companies arguing they’re nutritionally inferior to cow’s milk and that the name “milk” could confuse and harm consumers. Criticism has been also been drawn regarding almond’s intensive production needs - almonds come from very thirsty trees!
It’s been an exciting time to be a nondairy milk product. Almond and soy milks have been popular for several years, but now it’s common to see other nondairy milks like hemp, walnut, pecan or pea, and now oat bursting on to the scene. The popular oat milk brand Oatly announced in May 2018 they’re introducing a new line of oat-based vegan ice creams. Writer Tom Philpott suggests oat milk should be the new almond milk: oats are more adaptable to varying climates and there’s early research it could lead to reduced herbicide usage.
So is oat milk healthy? Should hipsters and new moms everywhere all simultaneously convene upon their local grocers and purchase the entire supply of oat milk? Let’s see.
From a purely nutritional perspective, here’s how oat and almond milk compare:
Here we’re comparing the “Original” flavors of each product. Flavored versions could have more calories, so I make sure to check I’m getting unsweetened.
The oat milk contains what seems pretty benign ingredients - a blend of mostly vitamins. I’d prefer the vegetable oil wasn’t in there, I’m guessing it’s there as a thickener. If the oil makes up less than 2% of 240ml, let’s assume the highest it could contain is 4.8g of oil. 240ml of mostly water is the same as 1 cup, or about 240g. So 0.02 oil x 240=4.8g of oil. If 1g of oil is 9 calories, that small amount of oil provides an additional 43.2 calories! Going the other way, let’s assume the oil is 0.1g in 240ml. That provides only 1 additional calories, but there’s no way to know. If Oatly wants to compete as a health product, they might have to tool around with lower calorie options – they could substitute the oil with gellan gum or xanthan.
Almond milk ingredients seems fairly ordinary as well - vitamins and thickeners. Almond milk is exactly half the calories, carbs and grams of fat as oat milk. Interestingly oat milk has 2g of protein whereas almond milk has 1g. Not a big difference. I’d be interested to find out the quantity of oats used to make 1 cup. We know that with almond milk, we’re paying for mostly water since almonds make up only about 2%, as stated in a lawsuit against Almond Breeze (but I’ll still keep purchasing almond milk mainly because of convenience).
Other oat milk brands contain similar (higher) calories:
L: Elmhurst Milked Oats. R: Pacific Foods oat milk, Original.
Oatly's info is confusing because their nutrition info is for every 100g, but their product contains 0.5L. Not ideal for making a quick conversion while grocery shopping. Their product is about 200 calories for 100g, so 64g (the same serving size as Halo Top) comes out to 128 calories. Halo Top is coconut-based, which we'd expect to be pretty caloric since coconut has a high amount of fat.
I’m not a big proponent liquid calories since they’re easy to overconsume. I’ll have about two ounces of almond milk in my coffee and when I’m trying to gain weight, I’ll mix it with protein powder or smoothies. If your goal is to simply eat a healthy diet, either seem fine to consume daily as an addition to snacks, drinks or meals like cereal and oatmeal. However if you’re watching your weight, I’d go with almond milk since oat is more caloric. Almond milk brands also have greater variety in flavors (for now) and in terms of price, a quick Amazon search shows original almond milk $0.14 per oz, whereas Oatly original comes out to $0.41 per oz. These are other areas where almond milk tops oat milk.
Will US consumers embrace oat milk like they have almond milk? I’m digging the environmental benefit of oat milk, but we shall see!