The world had already started souring on dairy milk about two decades ago and substitutes have been taking over more and more shelf space while fighting for the top spot ever since.
So much so that according to a recent Daily Maverick wellness feature, “worldwide sales of milk alternatives more than doubled between 2009 and 2015, which reflects both consumer demand and the growing array of products developed to meet this demand”.
The most popular alternatives (in the U.S.) are almond milk, followed by soya, coconut, oat then rice. There’s also cashew, hemp, pea, peanut, quinoa and who knows what else will pop up in the near future.
In the mix, oat is the relatively new kid on the vegan block, and one that Forbes declared was going to have its biggest year yet this year.
Even though COVID-19 may have disrupted any projected trends, it could still come true. The Guardian reported in mid-July that celebrities like Jay-Z, Natalie Portman and Oprah all invested in Oatly, a Swedish brand that’s been creaming its competitors in terms of market share and fashionability.
English singer Pixie Lott has even recreated a dairy advert campaign called “Make Mine Milk” that she once starred in that echoed the famous U.S “Got Milk” campaign that featured other celebrities like Reggie Bush, Chrissy Teigen, Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, Venus and Serena Williams and Whoopi Goldberg with milk moustaches. Now instead of dairy, she’s imploring you to make yours with oat milk.
The taste test
But should oat milk unseat almond milk as the new white gold? Is it better than all the plant-based alternatives out there? As someone who has tried most of them (except those from the nut family), I’ve settled on soya as my favourite, because I find that the flavour and consistency make me miss dairy the least.
Oat milk has been said to be favoured by baristas and coffee drinkers because of its well-balanced and subtle taste, slight sweetness, foamability, slowness to curdle and close consistency to cow’s milk. But when the team from Insider did a blind test last year of “organic whole milk, lactose-free 2% milk, organic 1% milk, skim milk, soya milk, almond milk, and oat milk”, guess which came dead last? Oat milk, described as “the alt-milk beloved by millennials”.
This even when they tried them as “just a stand-alone cup of milk, in a bowl of cereal, mixed with coffee, fried into French toast and steamed.” But to be fair, the tasters weren’t lactose intolerant so there was no urgent need to cut dairy out of their diets.
So if the jury is out on its flavour, how is it made and does it tick more ethical and health boxes than most?
The sustainability test
Producing it commercially means harvesting the whole grain food, mixing it with water, then milling or blending it down into a thick liquid. Then introducing enzymes to break down the carbohydrates to make it sweeter.
To turn it into a smooth, nutritious and store-ready product means removing any fibres, adding minerals and vitamins then pasteurising.
If you look at the environmental impact of one glass of oat milk compared to dairy and other popular vegan alternatives, it’s the greener of the bunch by far.
So shares the BBC: “Producing a glass of dairy milk every day for a year requires 650 sq m (7,000 sq ft) of land, the equivalent of two tennis courts and more than 10 times as much as the same amount of oat milk, according to this [Oxford] study.” And “almond milk requires more water to produce than soya or oat milk. A single glass requires 74 litres (130 pints of water) - more than a typical shower. Rice milk is also comparatively thirsty, requiring 54 litres of water per glass.” Taking emissions, land and water use into consideration, we should be choosing oat milk.
Unless you’re gluten intolerant, more points around sustainability make it a good frontrunner. Another Guardian article, that declares that almonds are bad for bees and demand on coconut can cause the exploitation of workers and destruction of rainforests, picks oats as a humble hero. “Right now, 50 to 90% of global oat production goes into animal feed,” says [Liz] Specht, “so there’s a huge existing acreage that we can safely steal share from without moving the needle at all on total production.” Specht is the associate director of science and technology for the Good Food Institute, a not-for-profit that promotes plant-based diets.
You will generally tend to pay a little more for this type of milk though because of its comparative newness. A litre of Oatly will cost you around R55 at Wellness Warehouse and Checkers’ Simple Truth Oat Milk is just over R30.
The nutritional benefits... or not
If you’re counting not just your coins but your calories as well, it’s worth noting Medical News Today says that “unflavoured oat milk has the highest amount of calories and carbohydrates of plant-based milk varieties”, even when the sugar is natural.
On the plus side, oat milk is high in fibre, especially a type of fibre called beta glucans that’s said to help you maintain normal cholesterol levels. Women’s Health says one glass of the stuff gives you around a third of what’s recommended for daily intake. It’s also low in saturated fats, which helps reduce your risk to cardiovascular disease.
So is oat milk worth the hype? While it rates highest on the sustainability scale, is high in fibre and lowers cholesterol, it’s also higher in sugar and calories and pricier than some other dairy alternatives. Like many new products, choosing a favourite dairy alternative boils down to personal taste and the reasons for choosing a plant-based alternative to dairy – whether it be ethical, health or sustainability reasons. The cows, however, will be happy with whichever one you choose.