Coming home from university because of COVID-19 was, to put it mildly, a time of transition. One adjustment that was more impactful than most? Having to make the switch from ample, dining hall breakfasts to much simpler, homemade ones. After a while, those quick bowls of cereal with milk started to add up. It wasn’t long before I became very aware of their consequences on my health and appearance, not to mention their environmental effects that I learned about along the way.
Taking a step back, my journey to plant-based drinks as cow's-milk alternatives was anything but smooth. As a child, I was always averse to drinking the cold glass of 2% my mother would clunk down next to me on the table. As a result, I spent much of my life only drinking milk in cereal and as an ingredient in other foods and beverages. When I got to college, there was rarely a reason to eat a bowl of cereal when I had a range of warm breakfasts to enjoy: pancakes, oatmeal, and a rotation of cold options. So when I went home to a pantry that had no intention of mimicking that constant buffet of food, cereal with milk again it was.
However, as I began to consume milk nearly every day, I started to notice that I had significantly more acne than before. Not only that, but also after eating, my lips would start to tingle. With the main change in my habits having been the heavy reintroduction of milk into my diet, I decided to take a break from cow's milk to see what would happen.
Within weeks, my acne had significantly improved and the pseudo-allergic reactions were a thing of the past. I even got into the habit of cooking breakfast for myself in the morning before class. While I was glad to have found the culprit, I started to wonder if other people were having similar experiences.
What I found most surprising in my online research on the subject was that cow's milk can increase women’s chances for ovarian cancer and bone fracture, while it makes men more at risk for developing prostate cancer. Milk’s high saturated fat content also contributes to the development of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. [Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine]
Moreover, the production of cow's milk is responsible for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions [MSN], with cattle being responsible for 62% of the carbon emissions contributed by the food industry [Washington Post].
At this point, I was converted to conventional milk’s plant-based alternatives. The question was then, where to begin with them?
Almond milk was my first foray into milk alternatives, but it was hard to find one that didn’t taste too strongly of almonds or that didn’t contain too many added syrups and sweeteners. So I switched to soy milk. And while less intrusive in my cereal, I noticed that I was starting to get some of the same acne that I was getting with cow's milk. Back to the drawing board I went.
This time, my research was a little less straightforward. Some people had had similar experiences with soy milk but there was a lack of consensus. It was unclear whether both almond and soy milks could have negative effects due to their high estrogen content. (Note that because many nutritional studies are funded by the food industry, this kind of conflict is easy to come across.) But I pressed on, looking for a conventional milk substitute with an unobtrusive flavor profile and without the negative impacts on both health and environment. That’s when I found oat milk.
Despite my multiple trips to the alternative milk section of the grocery store, oat milks had yet to catch my attention. Maybe my vision had been focused on the almond and soy milk I was looking for, or perhaps the higher prices beneath the cartons of oat milk (at least while shopping in the U.S.) immediately filtered them out as options. Either way, oat milk was now on my radar and it showed great potential as my new favorite plant-based drink.
While there is still debate on whether eating oats is nutritionally identical to drinking oat milk, there are plenty of health benefits to its consumption. Oats have a very similar vitamin and mineral content to cow's milk, but a very dissimilar impact on health. Oats can stabilize blood sugar levels, improve cholesterol, and reduce the risk of heart disease. At the same time, oat milk uses less land and water than other plant-based milk alternatives. According to a study (conducted by an oat milk company, I should add), oat milk production results in, “80 percent lower GHG emissions and 60 percent less energy use compared to cow's milk.” [Oatly]
Armed with my new knowledge, I went back to the grocery store intending to buy the cheapest carton of oat milk I could find. After all, they couldn’t all be ridiculously expensive. And while I found oat milk that would fit nicely into my budget, I also found the shelves empty.
Besides the price tags, the only indication that there had once been plenty of oat milk were the (now empty) spaces throughout the store advertising Oatly, arguably the most popular brand of this type of milk.
Oatly is a Swedish company that has been around for over 25 years as the world’s largest oat drink company. The first that I had heard of it while living in the U.S. was during its infamous Superbowl commercial last winter. And then I started to see its catchy posters around as well. With all of the advertising, I had to ask myself whether Oatly actually deserved the spotlight. “Milk, but made for humans,” the brand likes to proclaim. But what exactly makes an oat milk good?
While it can certainly be a healthier alternative to cow's milk, oat milk is not inherently healthy. Many of the oat milk brands on the market are considerably processed, and less healthy than their homemade alternatives. However, a relatively healthy oat milk will not have any added sugar, chemical thickeners, or glyphosates. During the manufacturing process, the carbohydrates in oats become simple sugars, so added sugar can be both unnecessary and a significant portion of your recommended daily value. Chemical gums can cause stomach upset, and glyphosate residue is a potential human carcinogen.
So how do Oatly and some of its main adversaries, Alpro and Bjorg, compare?
Alpro is a less expensive alternative to Oatly and is known for its thin texture and acidic taste, closer to that of Greek yogurt. While it is low in saturated fats, often organic (so unlikely to contain glyphosate residue), has no added sugar, and is free from preservatives, it does contain thickeners. Bjorg Oat Milk is the third most popular oat milk in Europe and identical to Alpro apart from having much less sodium.
Oatly, no matter the Superbowl commercial reception, still has the slightest edge over its competitors because of its thick and creamy taste. Both its regular and low-fat oat drinks are certified as free of gluten, thickeners, and glyphosates. They also have marginally less sodium than Alpro. However, its oat-extraction process creates seven grams of additional sugar per cup, which is more than 20% of recommended daily values.
That being said, Bjorg is the clear winner for the healthiest oat milk, Oatly is the tastiest, and Alpro falls inexpensively between the two.
All in all, oat milk is a great option for those who react negatively to cow's milk, and it puts significantly less strain on the environment than other plant-based milks. And although Oatly is far from a superfood, I’ll still be sure to pick up a carton the next time that it’s on sale.