The Scientific Genius behind Oat Milk

  |   Food, Food Choices, Health, Healthy eating, Healthy Food Choice, Healthy Life Style, Science, Vegan   |   No comment

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From marketing to food and nutritional science, this popular dairy-free alternative succeeds beyond taste.

The first time I heard about oat milk was back in December 2017. I was walking down a boulevard in Santa Monica, California on a warm December evening when I stepped into a very cali-hipster coffee shop. As per usual, I ordered coffee with soy milk.

“Unfortunately, we don’t carry soy milk,” the barista says amongst the whirr of coffee grounds in the espresso machine “but we just started carrying another dairy-free alternative. It’s called oat milk, do you want to try it?”

He didn’t even have to convince me as I eagerly said yes. Oat milk was intriguing, yet comfortingly familiar. Also, don’t baristas always know best?

My introduction to oat milk was the perfect example of the organic experience Oatly’s marketing geniuses had dreamt up in their heads: Person (most likely, millennial) enters coffee shop, hipster barista offers oat milk, person likes oat milk. Person and coffee shops buy more oat milk.

The marketing of the Swedish company Oatly was, if I may, oat-rageously successful. In charming the gatekeepers of good caffeine to use oat milk which in turn charms customers, Oatly reached net sales of over $110 million in 2018, with projections expected to double in 2019.

Swedish Scientist Rickard Oste first created oat milk in the early 1990’s. He was a food scientist studying lactose intolerance. He wanted to create an environmentally friendly drink which contained no lactose sugar. Ahead of his time, he created a thick, creamy product with natural sweetness thanks to the natural sugars found in oats.

Oat milk naturally contains more starch than soy, almond or rice milk where dairy milk has no starch. Enzymes are added to the oat milk mixture which allows for the release of natural sugar molecules from the starch, which is why oat milk has naturally sweet, nutty taste.

Oat milk is also known as a “barista’s favorite” which was a key selling point back when Oatly was busy convincing barista’s to stock shelves with their product. In hopping behind the counter, oat milk surpassed the test as its moderate protein and fat content created an ideal, creamy foam perfect for lattes, cappachinos, macchiatos — or whatever new coffee-craft a barista could dream of.

The product aligned with Richard Oste’s initial vision as it carries out a reduced-environmental impact. Oat milk significantly decreases greenhouse gas emissions and intensive water usage compared to levels required dairy farming. For example, one litre of dairy milk is estimated to take of 1000 litres of water to produce, while one litre of oat milk only requires around 48 litres of water to produce.

One litre of oat milk only requires around 48 litres of water to produce

Unfortunately, drinking one cup of oat milk is not comparable to eating a bowl of oatmeal. However, oat milk still has some notable health benefits and deserves to be compared with other milks and milk alternatives.

Oat milk contains β-glucan, a type of soluble fiber which is proven to reduce LDL-cholesterol levels. β-glucan is a non-starch carbohydrate, which forms complexes with the cholesterol-containing bile-salts in our intestine.

One study showed that diets supplemented with around 3g of β-glucan decreased LDL-cholesterol levels by 5–7% compared to control diets.

One cup of oat milk is estimated to contain around 1.3 grams of β-glucans, whereas one-cup of oats contains closer to 3 g. Oat milk might help you up your β-glucan intake without having to consume copious amounts of oats.

Non-dairy milks get a bad rap on their sugar content — however many people fail to realize that dairy milks have a significant amount of naturally occurring sugar, mostly in the form of the disaccharide lactose.

For comparison, one cup of 1% dairy milk has 12–13 g of naturally occurring sugar, while one cup of unsweetened oat milk contains only 6 grams of naturally occurring sugar from the oats, and contains no lactose.

This is especially beneficial for those who are lactose-intolerant. Nearly half of the adult-population in North America is lactose-intolerant as the function of our lactase enzyme, lactase, significantly decreases after being weaned off breastmilk.

Oat milk has significantly less protein, at only 4 g per cup compared to 8 g found in one cup of cow’s milk. However, this is higher than all other non-dairy alternatives except for soy milk. Soy milk remains the non-dairy alternative which is on par with cow’s milk, which contains 8 g of protein per cup.

While oat milk is safe for children and teens, it shouldn’t replace soy or cow’s milk if it is relied on as a source of protein. As with all milks, oat milk should never replace breastmilk or infant formula.

Commercial manufacturers will fortify the milk with calcium, vitamin D and B12 to make it comparable to dairy milk and other non-dairy milks. While it varies amongst brands, in general, one cup of oat milk will provide at least 30–50% daily value of calcium, vitamin D and B12.

But — fortification of these milks is not always required by law depending on where you live. Always make sure to read the nutrition facts label, and shake your milk carton before pouring! Nutrients often settle to the bottom of the carton.

Note that with homemade oat-milks will not have vitamin D, B12 or calcium as you can’t simply fortify milk in your kitchen. If you plan on making homemade oat milk, make sure plan on getting these nutrients from other sources.

Oat milk is a phenomenal innovation of the food industry and has a stellar marketing and branding campaign. In combining the product’s delicious taste, potential health benefits and impressive performance under (steam) pressure, oat milk and Oatly pioneered a new way of enjoying dairy-free milks.

By knowing the low-down on the potential health benefits, we can move forwards being a more educated and conscientious consumer. If we think we are on the path to health and longevity by consuming oat-milk ice-cream, we have succumbed once again to the ravenous health food marketing industry.

We are consuming oat milk, not a bowl of oatmeal.

But in the meantime, I will definitely continue to sip on my coffee with a few splashes of oat-milk in it — not because it may marginally reduce my blood cholesterol, but because it’s freakin’ delicious, perfectly foamy and dairy-free.

Kristen is a dietetics student and Laura is a food science and nutrition student.

Beet Science aims to deliver fun and informative evidence-based nutrition and food science articles about the everyday foods you eat.#RootedInScience

  • Kristen Eleanor
  • B.Sc Nutritional Sciences, Dietetics Student
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