Oat milk in the spotlight

Long ago in the dark ages, “milk” meant milk from an animal, most commonly from a cow, a goat or a sheep. People have been using milk for eons, drinking it, making cheese and making fermented foods like yogurt. Because milk is loaded with nutrients — protein, fats, calcium, lactose and other vitamins and minerals — it improves the diet quality of people who consume it, particularly growing children.

Now “milk” has taken on a new meaning: liquids derived from processed plant ingredients. The list is long: soy, almond, coconut, cashew, rice, hemp, flax, pea and oat are current examples. In their natural state, these “milks” have nothing in common with the nutrient profile of real milk, but they are white (sort of), so that helps with the visuals. What next then? Potato milk? When we see White Bread Milk in stores, we’ll know this trend has jumped the shark.

Oat Milk

Oat milk is a great example of this trend. Basically, it’s really really watery oatmeal. Well I exaggerate. It’s not even that good. Soaked whole oats are pulverized and then strained to separate the liquid from the pulp, removing most of the nutrients we expect from oats (famous for soluble fiber content). Well, the liquid is at least sort of white-ish.

Then in order to make the Nutrition Facts panel look impressive, the oat “milk” manufacturers add a few key nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin D, maybe some random B vitamins, calcium. Basically they’re created a watery vitamin supplement. So-called barista editions have chemicals or gums (or both) that support foaming for lattes.

If this all sounds like a whole lot of processing …. it is! Plant “milk” isn’t just squeezed from the plant. It takes a lot of water, energy, added chemicals and… yes…. waste to produce plant “milk”. Oat milk is no exception.

Nutritionally Speaking

1 cup milkcaloriesproteinfatcarbscalcium
Oat milk, full fat1613 g9 g15 g350 mg*
Oat milk, low fat913 g2 g16 g350 mg*
Milk, whole1507.7 g8 g12 g275 mg
2% milk1228 g5 g12 g293 mg

NOTE:

  • “full fat” oat milk is made by adding oil to the mix. Oats themselves are not high fat.
  • Oat milk manufacturers have different definitions of Low of Full fat, so if fat content is an issue, check the Nutrition Facts panel and the ingredients’ list.
  • Non-fat cow’s milk would have negligible fat content, less than low fat oat milk.
  • * Calcium in oat milk is always added.

The main nutrient differences shown in the table are protein and carbs. The protein issue is not trivial. Oat protein is not high quality, and there’s less of it. This might not be a big deal to some 27 year old getting an oat milk skinny latte, but if a kid is guzzling oatmilk instead of cow’s milk, his/her protein intake will be compromised. The higher carbs are another problem, for that kid and also for anyone concerned about carb intake (such as diabetics).

Cooking

You can substitute oat milk in cooking, but it will not produce the same result in recipes that call for cow’s milk. Cooking is about food chemistry as well as flavor. Oat milk — with a decidedly different protein, fat and carbohydrate content than milk — is not going to behave the same in recipes for cakes or sauces. Pancakes might be your best bet. And you can use it in smoothies.

Why?

The only health reasons for using something like oat “milk” would be allergy to cow’s milk. Oat milk is not nutritionally superior. In fact it’s pretty low protein (and that protein is not high quality), not to mention high carbohydrate. Not the best choice for growing kids who drink a lot of milk. Without all the added nutrients, it would basically be oat-flavored water, which wouldn’t improve the nutritional quality of your diet.

But of course, health isn’t the only reason people choose foods. Oat milk is fashionable. It’s vegan. For some people, those are compelling reasons.

Taste? It will vary by manufacturer, and according to how much sugar is added. Most companies have one unsweetened variety and several sweetened ones. It tastes a bit oat-y. Putting oat milk on your cereal is like putting cereal on your cereal.

There are even artificially sweetened varieties, which seems contradictory. If you’re so concerned about the alleged environmental virtues of oat milk, why would you use one with artificial sweeteners?

So, fashion and a vegan diet would seem to be the main reasons for choosing oat milk.

Copyright: All content © 2020 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.