Oat milk reality check

Oat milk is a new “thing” among vegans and anti-dairy foodies.  So I thought I should investigate oat milk.  That was yesterday.  Searching on the term “oat milk” brought up dozens of gushy websites about how oat milk is going to save the world and is so much better/healthier than whatever you’re using now.  For some reason almond milk is singled out for particular ire.  One story (in the BBC!) threw out the statement that oat milk was so obviously healthy, who wouldn’t make the switch.  Of course, no links to actual facts to back up that statement.  Because these days, who needs facts?  If you believe oat milk is healthier than whatever, then it must be so, even if you’re the BBC.

At which point I was so angry I had to take a day off from reading about oat milk.

One of the gushy websites was full of photos claiming to show homemade oat milk being poured onto cereal or into coffee.  The liquid in question looked basically like heavy cream.  Sure.  The recipe told a rather different story.  Basically you pulverize 1 cup of rolled oats with 4 cups water in a blender.  Then you strain it.  The resulting liquid is oat “milk”.  You throw away the strained-out residue, which is where any nutrients from the oats would be — the protein, fiber, minerals, etc.  The oat “milk” needs added salt and sweetener to be palatable.  Basically you’ve got a watery carb drink.

Commercial brands of plant beverages typically have added nutrients to try to make them similar to cow’s milk.  It’s like adding a crushed up vitamin pill to the plant liquid.  Calcium is popular.  So is vitamin D.  Unlike cow’s milk, plant beverages other than soy are very low protein.  Protein isn’t added though, probably because the flavor would be adversely affected.  You’d have to add lots of sweetener to mask the protein powder taste, at which point you’ve got some kind of smoothie rather than a liquid that mimics milk.  So-called “barista” oat milks are typically thickened up with gels and gums, perhaps so they’ll stand up better to frothing.

By the way, many of these websites claim you can substitute oat and other plant-derived liquids for real milk in recipes like cakes, muffins, pancakes and the like.  You can’t if you want the recipe to turn out as expected.  The chemical composition of cow’s milk (protein, fats, lactose) is radically different from that of plant-derived liquids (some carbs, maybe added fat, maybe not).  The only plant “milk” that might give similar results to cow’s milk in cooking is soy.

Recently, the FDA finally decided to crack down on the use of the term “milk” for these plant-derived liquids.  The plant-milk aficionados screeched in protest.  How DARE they enforce the code of regulations!   But in fact the FDA has the right to do that.  There’s an official legal definition of “milk” and it only involves milk that comes from animals.  Plants don’t lactate.  They don’t feed their young.

Frankly I don’t care if someone wants to put pulverized almond water or oat-flavored liquid in their coffee or on their cereal.  Your choice.  I have two problems with this industry:

  1. Use of the term “milk” for what is basically a plant-based soup.  The word “milk” implies all kinds of nutritional qualities that plant milks do not have.  Other than soy, plant milks are woefully low protein, and without the added crushed up supplements, woefully low in pretty much all other nutrients.
  2. Feeding this stuff to kids.  True story: I’ve met plenty of misguided parents who thought “oh, it’s white, therefore it’s the same as cow’s milk”.  Their children don’t know any better.  When these drinks are substituted for cow’s milk into a typical child’s diet, the child ends up with problems like poor growth, excess body fat, exhausted and deficient in several key nutrients important for growth.  If your kids are going to drink plant liquids, the rest of their diet needs to be nutritionally superb.

Actually I have a third problem which is that this industry is passed off as being so pure and green and politically correct, not like the awful Big Dairy.  Meanwhile making plant “milk” is a highly industrialized process, requiring all kinds of chemical and energy input, and that’s after you’ve grown, harvested and shipped the crops (fertilizer, water, possibly pesticides) to produce the raw plant material (almond trees are notoriously thirsty).

When the threat of a labeling crackdown looming, I expect the marketing geniuses at the plant beverage companies are working overtime to come up with a suitably reassuring term to use instead of milk.   The technically correct description — liquid drained  from pulverized plant material — just doesn’t have that warm fuzzy feeling.  I’d suggest “soup”, but people probably don’t want to feel like they’re putting soup in their coffee or on their cereal.

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