The desire for healthier foods and a healthier planet has led many of us to look for alternatives. We want the delicious foods we love to eat to also be healthy. We also want the production of those foods to have as little negative impact on the planet as possible.
Recent studies show that between 62% and 94% of people read the labels on the packaged foods they buy. Clearly, a majority of people care about what’s in their food. Thus many are turning to plant-based beverage alternatives. The leader in the plant-based food revolution is milk alternatives, sometimes known as “alt milks.”
It’s only recently that a wide variety of plant-based milk alternatives have become available in most grocery stores in the US. Most convenience stores even stock plant-based milk alternatives, which was unheard of just a decade ago.
Oat milk. Almond milk. Soy milk. Hemp milk. Coconut milk. In this article, we’re going to focus on a rising star in the world of plant-based milks: oat milk.
With so many choices, consumers have several things to consider when deciding which milk alternatives to use:
- How does it taste?
- What is its nutritional value?
- What is its environmental impact?
Plant-based beverages all look pretty much the same. But as we consider taste, nutritional value, and environmental impact, we’ll see some pretty stark differences. We may even find a clear winner in the competition for the “best overall milk alternative.”
How Oat Milk Makes Its Way to Your Local Grocery Store
The oats that go into the oat beverages found in the US are grown in Canada and the United States. Commercial oat milk is made by adding water to oats and then milling that mixture until it’s smooth. Then enzymes are added to break down the starches (enzymes also keep oat milk from becoming slimy.) From there, the oat solids are separated and eliminated, leaving behind oat milk.
How Oat Milk Stacks Up Against Other Plant-Based Beverages
Oat milk is naturally sweet, so it does well in taste tests against other milk alternatives. It tends to be creamier, too, so people like it in coffee, smoothies, and cereal.
The nutritional value of oat milk varies from brand to brand because many brands add vitamins and minerals. While soy milk may always be the protein champion for plant-based beverages, oat milk is a close second.
As far as environmental impact goes–spoiler alert–oat milk compares favorably. It takes 48 liters of water to produce a liter of oat milk. That may sound like a lot, but oat milk takes far less water to produce than any other milk alternative. It also requires 80% less land and produces the least greenhouse gas emissions.
Almond beverages usually come in second to oat milk in taste tests. They tend to be less creamy, though, so they can curdle when added to hot beverages.
Nutritionally, almond beverages hold up fairly well against other milk alternatives. Almond beverages are lower in calories than oat milk but higher in fat. They beat soy beverages on calories but not on protein.
Whole almonds are extremely nutrient-dense, but almond beverages are not. Because of how almond beverages are made, nutrients found in high amounts in whole almonds are not present in high amounts in almond beverages.
In terms of water use, almond beverages are not as efficient as oat milk. It takes 12 liters of water to produce a single almond, and almonds are often grown in climates in which water is scarce. On the upside, almond growing doesn’t contribute very much to greenhouse gas emissions.
Soy beverages are the original milk alternative. They’ve been around for about 600 years but were not commercially produced in the United States until 1917. Soy beverages fell in popularity in the 1980s after reports that soy contains hormones that mimic hormones in the human body.
Later studies showed that a person would have to ingest an impossibly large amount of soy to suffer any ill effects. Later studies even showed that women benefited from the small amount of hormones soy contains.
To make soy beverages, soybeans are pressed. The insoluble fiber is then removed, leaving behind a milky white liquid. It’s common for vitamins and minerals to then be blended in. Soy beverages are the second best-selling milk alternative after almond beverages, and they do well in taste tests.
Soy beverages hold up quite well in nutritional comparisons as well. Soybeans are naturally high in protein, and that protein is not lost when soybeans are made into milk. Just like with oat milk, it’s important to opt for organic products if you want to avoid synthetic pesticides.
Environmentally, soy beverage production is a mixed bag. Soybeans have relatively low greenhouse gas emissions and they use less than a tenth of the water used to grow almonds. On the downside, it takes a lot more land to grow soybeans than it does to grow almonds.
As recently as 2018, it was illegal to farm hemp in the US, so all of the hemp seed used in beverages sold in the US before that time was imported. Hemp beverages are simple to make: just blend hemp seeds with water. Many varieties also include sweeteners, salt, and thickening agents.
Hemp beverages have an earthy, nutty flavor. They’re the least like cow’s milk of any of the milk alternatives, but most people find they work well in coffee, smoothies, and cereal. Hemp beverages are high in protein and healthy fats, so they compare well nutritionally to other milk alternatives.
Before hemp production was outlawed in the US in 1937, it was known to be an especially hearty crop. A new generation of hemp farmers is finding that the need for pesticides for hemp crops is low. In initial environmental studies, hemp compares favorably to other crops used for milk alternatives.
Coconut beverages are made by grating the white flesh of mature coconuts and mixing shredded coconut pulp with hot water. Coconuts do contain some excellent micronutrients, but most of the nutritional value of coconut beverages comes from added vitamins and nutrients.
Like soybeans, the environmental impact of coconut milk can depend on who you ask. On the positive side, coconut trees absorb carbon dioxide and require less water than dairy cows. On the downside, because coconuts only grow in tropical areas, there is pressure to use critical rainforest land for coconut production as demand increases.
How Sustainable is Oat Milk?
To answer this question, let’s leave taste out of the equation. Sustainability is about balancing the desires of people with the health of the planet.
So who better than a scientist to give that report?
Liz Specht of the Good Food Institute recently said, “Oat milk performs very well on all sustainability metrics.” Then she shared some even better news: “I highly doubt there will be unintended environmental consequences that might emerge when the scale of oat milk use gets larger.”
This last point is particularly important. Dr. Specht and her team didn’t just study the impact of oat milk production now; they worked with models to study the impact of oat milk production in the future.
It appears that the rapid climb in oat milk sales is very good news for the planet.
There are no two ways about it: Oat milk is a triumph in the plant-based beverage market. It consistently wins in taste tests. It has high nutritional value. It uses the least resources to produce and impacts the environment less than any other milk alternative.