Stories from Food and Nutrition

With Mainstream Dairy Brands Jumping on the Oat Milk Bandwagon, What Will Happen to Cow’s Milk?

Emily Laurence

Emily LaurenceDecember 17, 2019

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Photo: Getty Images/Dit Ross Helen

Of the long (long) list of alternative milks on the market, oat milk is currently king. This year, oat milk sales reached $29 million—up from $4.4 million in 2017. While the OG oat brand darlings continue to expand (with Oatly rolling out ice cream and Rise Brewing launching canned lattes), brands that were once committed to cow’s milk are jumping on board the trend, too.

Danone—one of the largest dairy businesses in the world—has recently shifted its focus to make oat milk-based projects a main priority. The company’s brands have launched not only oat milk, but also oat-based ice cream, creamer, yogurt, and lattes. Chobani, a brand that has long been a major player in the yogurt space, launched *three* oat milk-based products this month. Even The Dairy Farmers of America, a milk marketing firm, is coming out with a line of “blended” milks that are half dairy, half-plant-based (yes, including oat), spawning an entirely new beverage category. (FWIW, cult skyr brand Siggi’s launched its first-ever plant-based yogurts in December, although they use coconut milk instead of oat milk as the base.)

With major brands once committed to cow’s milk now jumping on board the oat milk train, it raises major questions about dairy, such as how the new oat milk products compare nutritionally, and what will happen if Americans stop consuming dairy completely.

Is oat milk even healthy? Check out the video below to see what a registered dietitian thinks:

Why oat milk products have become more popular than nut-based ones

There are several reasons why dairy brands are entering the oat milk space. Two major ones—money and consumer demand—won’t come as a surprise, but there are other reasons too. Oat milk has a creamier consistency than nut-based milks, and since it requires less water to produce than nut milks, it’s also more sustainable. Then, there’s the fact that most people like the taste; oat milk is the closest tasting to cow’s milk, with none of the nutty aftertaste other alternatives have.

“The demand for plant-based, non-dairy options has significantly grown over recent years, and we see oat as a superior base from both an agriculture and sensory perspective,” says Niel Sandford, the vice president of product development at Chobani “Unlike some other plant-based options, we believe in the craft, versatility, nutrition, and environmental footprint behind oats, making it the perfect fit for the Chobani family.”

Domenic Borrelli, the president of plant-based food and beverages and premium dairy at Danone North America, offers a similar reason for Danone going big with oat milk. “Its neutral taste and creamy texture is reminiscent of traditional dairy milk,” he says. “Taste and texture are typically two of the biggest barriers for people considering plant-based beverages, and when consumers taste our oat milk products, and experience the versatility, they notice a step-change. It’s also a great option for those with nut allergies, or anyone simply seeking a delightful, creamy, dairy-free drink, perfect for sipping by the glass or using in cereal.”

Oat milk versus cow’s milk

Although oat milk and cow’s milk may taste and behave similarly, there are major differences some experts in the field say consumers shouldn’t ignore. “Many people use oat milk as a substitute product for cow’s milk, but they have completely different nutritional profiles,” Katie Brown, EdD, RDN, the senior vice president of sustainable nutrition for the National Dairy Council. Brown isn’t against alt-milks—she just thinks consumers need to be aware of the nutrients they do and don’t contain. “Cow’s milk has a more powerful nutritional package—a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, and several B vitamins including B12,” Brown says.

Meanwhile, non-dairy milks, including oat, typically have far less protein per serving and very few vitamins (unless they’re fortified). Brown also points out that alt-milks across the board tend to be primarily made of water, and the oats often appear in an ingredients’ list next to additives such as carrageenan or gums, neither of which you’ll find in cow’s milk. “Oat milk tends to also be higher in carbs and added sugar,” she adds.

Of course not everyone can digest dairy milk and for those people, the oat milk explosion is a welcome rising trend. But it bears repeating that just because oat milk is allowing dairy-free eaters to enjoy all of the yummy foods and drinks that were once off limits, they’ll still need to fill in the nutritional gaps elsewhere in their diets.

Is this the end of cow’s milk?

Despite the fact that mainstream dairy brands are branching out, Brown sets the record straight that it’s not because dairy farmers are worried cow’s milk is becoming obsolete. “Ninety-five percent of U.S. consumers have [dairy] milk in their fridge,” she says, citing a stat from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She adds that many Americans (roughly 50 percent) buy both dairy and alt-milk products.

Even the new blended milks—coming out early next year—were birthed not out of fear, but in response to the stats showing that consumers are into both, says Rachel Kyllo, the senior vice president of growth and innovation at Kemps, owned by Dairy Farmers of America. “The idea behind it was about combining the creaminess and nutrition profile from cow’s milk with oat for a different taste profile,” she says. “It’s lighter and more refreshing than cow’s milk, so it lands just in the middle between the two.”

Of course it can’t be ignored that some consumers choose not to consume dairy products because they are passionate about animal welfare and are concerned about the ethical treatment of cows—concerns that came to a head earlier this year after Fairlife Dairy faced allegations of animal abuse. Both Brown and Kyllo recognize this concern and encourage consumers to research the dairy brands on the market for more information about the guidelines they follow. “There is a very strong set of guidelines by the National Milk Producers Federation called Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM),” Brown says. “There’s a big misconception about how cows are treated in the dairy industry when farmers, in fact, love their cows.” This argument might not be totally convincing to a vegan, but it’s clear that concerns over the treatment of dairy cows are top of mind for the industry.

The choice of what to buy is of course up to consumers (that means you!) and more options to choose from is definitely a positive. Whether you want all oat everything, cow’s milk only, or a bit of both, the choice is yours. You might as well, er, milk it!

BTW, here’s how to make your own oat milk. Plus, some positives of full-fat dairy you might not know about.

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