Food & Drink

So This Is Why Everyone’s So Hyped About Oat Milk

oat milk
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

At the dawn of the modern non-dairy milk age, there was soy. Then we converted to the wonders of almond milk as our drink of choice. Somewhere along the way banana, hemp, pea, macadamia, coconut, rice, flax, and probably others that I can't think of at the moment all began to vie for our attention. And now, as we enter the year of our Lord 2020, oat milk is the one true monarch of the alt milk universe for all your coffee-balancing, cereal-eating, and cookie-dunking pleasures.

You've probably seen oat milk at your favorite coffee shop. It's in grocery store aisles across the country, and there was even a black market for it not too long ago. I confess, I'd never tasted any oat milks or other such products before getting this assignment. But having tasted it and investigated it thoroughly I can now truthfully say that I'm no longer a skeptic. I’ve drunk the oat milk Kool-Aid...so to speak.

For those of you who are still confused by what I even mean when I say "oat milk," let's start with the basics.

Oat milk -- if you can even call it "milk," usage the Swedish government has banned for non-dairy drinks -- is made using a process not unsimilar to other non-dairy "milks." Commercial products tend to add salt for flavor, oil for mouthfeel, and various vitamins and minerals for nutrition. Swedish scientist Rickard Öste first created it in the 1990s while studying lactose intolerance. In looking for an alternative to dairy milk that was good for Mother Earth, he invented the dairy-, soy-, gluten-, and nut-free beverage that has become the phenomenon it is today.

Presumably looking to cash in on his invention -- or, perhaps more nobly, simply wanting to spread the gospel of oat milk -- Öste founded Oatly to bring his product to the masses.

Oatly is one of the top brands of oat milk in the United States today, though in reality, it wasn't the first company to enter the market. That title goes to Pacific Foods, the Oregon-based company that has been hawking the beverage since 1996. However, it’s Oatly’s clever marketing plan that we have to thank for the drink's present popularity. The company crossed the Atlantic Ocean in late 2016 with a near singular target: baristas at your favorite hip coffee shops.

Having already conquered the coffee shops of Sweden, Oatly's oat milk proved a far superior nondairy alternative to add to your morning cup of Joe. The world had largely already moved on from soy milk. And though some people, like me, enjoy the taste of almond milk, it doesn't have the right consistency to be a great match for coffee. Oatly's oat milk, on the other hand, is the perfect complement for your regular drip coffee as you rush out the door to work, and has a beautifully creamy texture that even froths well for lattes and cappuccinos. As the company indoctrinated baristas into its cult, they became the brand's evangelists, converting one coffee drinker at a time.

It was a genius plan that worked extremely well. A few splashes of oat milk in your morning cup is a fairly low risk way of getting consumers to sample the product instead of having to buy a whole carton.

Given the large portion of humans with dairy sensitivities and intolerances as well as those who choose to reduce their consumption of animal products for ethical reasons, oat milk is the great tasting nondairy messiah that they were looking for. People just can't get enough. In fact, Oatly soon found themselves with a problem of supply and demand. During what some are calling "The Great Oat Milk Shortage of 2018" (okay, maybe that's just me), establishments ran out of stock of the beloved beverage and those lucky few with some on hand started selling it online for multiples of the original price (#capitalism). Oatly increased their stock and opened more manufacturing facilities (with more on the way this year) to try to meet society's growing devotion to the beverage.

Looking to take advantage of the outsized demand, a number of other companies have entered the market. Planet Oat was leading the pack in the US as of late last year. There's also Elmhurst, Silk, Califia Farms, and PepsiCo Inc.’s Quaker Oats competing for consumers' almighty dollar. 

The oat milk market is no longer limited to milk. There are now yogurts and ice creams by brands including So Delicious, Oatly, and Hälsa. Even dairy titan Chobani -- the top seller of yogurt in America -- is entering the oat game with beverages and yogurts this year.

"Will you be covering the discussions of environmental sustainability and also pesticides used to treat oat crops?" my college friend Josh asked when I told him I was working on this story. Well, Josh, the answer is yes. Öste's aim was twofold, providing a healthful dairy alternative and saving the earth.

Compared to dairy milk, oat milk is better for the planet in terms of greenhouse emissions, land use, and water use. Pitting it against soy, rice, and almond milks, one study shows that oat milk is second lowest in terms of greenhouse emissions, requires a comparable amount of land, and consumes significantly less water than rice or almond milks. 

In terms of pesticides, yes, oats are often found to contain levels of glyphosate considered unsafe. (Glyphosate is believed to increase the risk of cancer and is the main active ingredient in Roundup.) But -- and this is a big but -- sourcing organic or at least glyphosate-free oats, as is the case with Oatly (and other brands), eliminates this concern. So check the labels and do a little research if that’s important to you.

All that said, on which brand should you spend your hard-earned coin?

I agree with the millions of others out there that Oatly's Full Fat Oatmilk is the best tasting that I've sampled. I've paired it with chocolate chip cookies and drank it by the glassful on its own. It has a similar mouthfeel to dairy milk with a slight oat flavor (which I personally love) and a subtle sweetness. Some liken it to the milk left after eating a bowl of cereal. The other brands I tried were fine, though some didn't have quite the same texture. If you're just looking for something to put in your smoothies, I don't think you can really go wrong with any of the brands.

The few yogurts I tried ranged from "I guess this is edible" to gag-inducing. I'm not gonna say which is which because my momma raised me right and I ain't no snitch, so try them at your own risk. But to end on a pleasant note, the ice creams I tasted were actually good. I've been happily eating Oatly's oat-flavored and So Delicious' oatmeal cookie frozen desserts to fuel the writing of this article. In fact, I actually plan to buy more oat milk ice cream in the future.

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Aaron Hutcherson is a writer, editor, recipe developer, and blogger behind The Hungry Hutch. He's a fan of soul food, whiskey, and intersectionality. Follow his cooking and eating adventures on Instagram and Twitter.