Well, as they say, there are exceptions to every rule!
In my March article, “Three Great Reasons to Make Your Own Almond and Other Plant-Based Milk,” we learned that most brands of store-bought plant milk are highly processed beverages made with fillers and stabilizers and lacking in any real nutritional value. And unless you buy the unsweetened versions, they typically also have lots of added sugar.
In fact, according to industry insiders, the sad truth is that a half-gallon of almond milk contains about a handful of almonds. (Silk brand almond milk, for example, contains just 2 percent almonds!)
While there are an increasing number of higher-quality, additive-free “boutique” or “barista-style” plant milk brands such as Malk Organics, Three Trees (also organic), and Elmhurst, these tend to be considerably more costly and less widely available.
There are also three brands of organic unsweetened plain soy milk – Westsoy, Edensoy, and Trader Joe’s Soy Beverage which are likewise free of thickeners and oil although these are more processed than the boutique brands.
At 12 grams per cup, Edensoy soy milk has the highest protein content of any soy milk brand and way more protein than other kinds of plant milk. Westsoy soy milk, in comparison, has 9 grams of protein. (Perhaps because soy is much cheaper than tree nuts such as almonds and macadamias you’ll find more than just a handful of them in soy beverages?)
Despite these exceptions, however, for the most part, when we’re talking about store-bought plant milk, we’re talking about manufactured thickened water with a minimum of plant-based nutrition.
“It’s (almond milk) actually a water-based emulsion that you’re adding oils, a lot of sugar and gums too, and then just adding a couple of nuts on top,” Cheryl Mitchell, chief scientist at Elmhurst, told The Guardian in January. “As a business model, it’s great – any time you can sell water, right? That’s essentially what they’re doing.”
But, as you’ll soon see, there’s a new plant-based milk on the block and I may have to eat (or, rather, drink) my earlier words about mass-produced store-bought plant milk!
A Swedish Oat Milk Sensation
Have you heard about Oatly? A relative newcomer to the plant-based milk scene in the United States, Oatly, a Swedish company, is actually the very first oat milk in the world! Oatly’s non-GMO, gluten-free oat milk products have taken the United States market by storm. (Oatly also makes oat-based “ice cream.”)
Oatly oat milk was introduced in 2017 at 10 specialty coffee shops in New York and is now available at about 5,000 coffee shops as well as 2,500 retail outlets nationwide, including big boys like Target and Whole Foods. Demand for Oatly has at times exceeded supply, although the company opened a new plant in New Jersey in April to ease what can only be called a “good problem.”
Oatly expects $230 million in sales in 2019, more than double its $110 million from 2018, when it was introduced in grocery stores early in the year.
Oatly’s website unapologetically explains the company’s longstanding “oats only” approach: “We don’t know anything about almonds or soy or cows. All we know is oats. How to grow them, harvest them and turn them into refreshing products that you can take home and treat your body to. It was our original idea in the early 1990s to create a plant-based drink that was in tune with the needs of both humans and the planet …”
In terms of sustainability, it takes six times less water to grow oats than the 1.1 gallons required to produce a single almond. In California, home to 80 percent of the world’s almond crop, almonds consume 10 percent of the water supply. (And don’t even get me started on the methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide, generated in spades by cows.)
Oatly was founded in 1993 by Swedish food science professor Richard Oste, whose research into lactose intolerance and the downsides of the dairy industry sent him on a scientific search for the perfect non-dairy milk alternative.
Oste developed his own unique process for liquefying oats, which are abundant in Sweden, using enzymes. The result was a product that mimicked dairy milk in taste and texture – at least according to those who love it.
A Food and Wine Magazine taste test ranked Oatly among the top three plant-based milk (alongside flax and macadamia milk), describing Oatly as “buttery,” “thick,” “very close to real milk,” and “excellent in coffee.”
Nutritional Ups and Downs
Best yet, Oste’s process retains some beta-glucan, the heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber that oats are known for, although at 2 grams of fiber per cup you’d have to drink up to match the 6 grams of fiber in a one-and-a-half cup bowl of oatmeal.
Due to its proprietary enzymatic liquefaction process – which is not something you can replicate at home – Oatly doesn’t need gums and stabilizers.
(In terms of other brands: Califia Farms’ Oat Barista Blend likewise has no thickeners or stabilizers although it does contain sunflower oil. Elmhurst’s Milked Oats Oat Milk doesn’t have gums or stabilizers but does have added sugar and is aseptically packaged.)
Oat milk contains much less protein than soy milk, but more than some other plant-based milk. If you’re watching carbs or calories, Oatly has about twice that of almond milk – which, after all, is mostly water.
Oats are safe for those with dairy, soy, and nut allergies.
On the downside, the original Oatmilk Chilled, Full Fat Oatmilk Chilled and Barista Blend versions of Oatly all contain canola oil, which apparently enhances Oatly’s texture and its renowned coffee drink froth and foam. However, highly processed and nutrient-poor canola oil is not something we want to be eating on a whole food plant-based diet.
The good news is that Oatly makes Low-Fat Oatmilk Chilled without added oil and that’s the only version I would recommend.
Unfortunately, Oatly is not certified organic, and conventional oats are typically grown with some pretty toxic pesticides.
And finally, Oatly contains dipotassium phosphate, a synthetically produced acidity regulator that helps Oatly hold its own in coffee. Oatly’s website justifies this by saying that dipotassium phosphate is made up of potassium and phosphorus, both common minerals in the body. It’s considered “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) by the FDA. However, a 2012 study found that phosphates can accumulate in the body and cause organ calcification in people with kidney failure as well as in people without kidney issues. Something to be aware of and perhaps not ideal for everyone.
So, What’s the Verdict?
Drumroll, please …
Well, I have to tell you that my expectations were rather low for the oil-free version of Oatly, which I could only imagine was a poor substitute of an afterthought offering to low-fat folks.
But what did I find?
Even the oil-free version of Oatly is fantastic if you’re looking for a dairy milk analog. There’s a very slight hint of oats which, at least to me, was not at all unpleasant – kind of a nostalgic “cereal milk” taste – and the overall look and feel were pretty darn close to the bovine-based original. While some plant-based milk has a tan or beige color, immediately distinguishing these beverages from dairy milk, Oatly is white and better plays the part.
I would have to say that Oatly is the closest to dairy milk of any plant-based milk I’ve ever tried. And, let me add that I have not received any compensation for this review.
While I’m usually an advocate of DIY whole foods at home in your kitchen, because of the enzymatic extraction process which retains beta-glucans, in this case, homemade oat milk is not going to rival Oatly.
My suggestion: go ahead and give Oatly a try!
Click here to find out where to purchase Oatly at a store near you.
(And, of course, as always, please let me know what you think …)