Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors

Oatly: The New Coke?

Swedish oat milk brand, Oatly, has hit the big international time and is now valued at over $2bn. This commentator is not impressed, calling out Oatly as worse than Coke in the health stakes, and accusing it of questionable marketing. Read on!

In the early 1990s, a Swedish researcher studying lactose intolerance and sustainable farming came up with an idea. What if he made an alternative milk out of oats?

Milk was extremely popular in Sweden but not everyone could drink it, and oats were abundant, so maybe he could work some magic and make a milk-like beverage from them. 

It worked. He figured out you could “use enzymes to liquefy oats into a rich milk in a way that still retained their digestion-boosting fibers.” (source). People with lactose intolerance want something to put in their coffee, and some people who aren’t lactose intolerant don’t want to support the dairy farming industry. Oat milk could provide an answer for both.

So could other alternative milks, sure, but none of them had the same mouth-feel of whole milk. Oste managed to solve the mouth-feel problem, and anyone who’s tried a latte with oat milk can attest it is by far the best tasting, most milk-like alternative. 

Oatly was much loved in Sweden, but didn’t start to seriously expand until 2012 when they hired a new CEO, Tony Peterson. Peterson overhauled the brand into the cutesy “David v Goliath” crusading company it is today and brought it to the US. 

Oatly’s new branding focused heavily on messages about health and the environment, playing on growing consumer awareness that our terrible diets are contributing to reversing life expectancy, and that industrial animal agriculture like the dairy industry is an abomination.

“It’s like milk but made for humans” became their leading slogan. The dairy industry in Sweden didn’t love that, so they sued Oatly for disparaging the milk industry, and when Oatly published the lawsuit their sales jumped 45%

It was an incredible marketing ploy, and Oatly’s success in the US is undeniable. But there’s something strange about this ad. In the finer print, Oatly explains: 

“Milk comes from a cow. It was designed for baby cows.”

Humans are the only animal that regularly consume another animal’s milk, which yeah, is a little strange. We could, of course, point out that dairy cows have been bred to produce milk for humans for as long as recorded history, and that it’s very normal for indigenous people with access to cows to drink milk.

It’s also hard to find compelling research suggesting milk is bad for you, which is part of what got Oatly sued (successfully) in the first place. But let’s let Oatly have this one. Drinking cows milk is weird. And it isn’t “made for humans.” 

The question is: if cows milk isn’t made for humans, is Oatly? 

Is Oatly made for humans?

Let’s define “made for humans” in the most generous way possible. When I hear “made for humans,” I assume it means the product is designed specifically for human consumption, and that it’s beneficial for our health or at least not hurting us.

If it just meant “designed for human consumption” then it would include cigarettes, alcohol, and heroin, which isn’t what I think Oatly is going for. There has to be an implied health element to it. There are a number of ways we could define “healthy”, but the most generous is to consider something healthy if it’s not demonstrably harmful to your health from normal consumption. A Greek salad with olive oil is healthy. Coca-Cola is not. 

So is Oatly designed for human consumption? Definitely. Is it healthy? Definitely not. 

The sugar

Oatly’s main ingredient is their oat base, which they make through a process of breaking down raw oats into their loose fibers to mix them with water and create a watery oat-based liquid that “contains macronutrients from the oats, in other words, protein, fat, and carbohydrates.” (source). 

The problem with this process is that it creates quite a bit of a sugar called maltose, which is why Oatly packaging shows 7g added sugar per serving. Of all the different kinds of sugars you can eat, maltose has the highest glycemic index, with a rating of 105 out of 100.

For comparison, table sugar has a rating of 65, and the high-fructose corn syrup you get in a Coca-Cola has a GI around 65-75. There’s less of it, but the sugar in Oatly has a higher gram-for-gram impact on your blood sugar than the HFCS in Coca-Cola.

Putting 12oz of Oatly into your latte and adjusting for the higher GI of maltose means adding almost a tablespoon of table sugar to your drink. Put a tablespoon of sugar next to your coffee next time you have a chance and seriously consider if that’s a decision that’s “made for humans.” 

Some of these sources I found from Jeff Nobbs, who did his own research on Oatly’s health. And the fun part is Oatly actually responded to him. In their response they defended the maltose (bolding is mine): 

“We use natural enzymes to liquefy our oats, as this process enables us to make a super creamy oatmilk that retains much of the goodness from the oats, like carbs, protein, unsaturated fat and soluble fiber (beta glucan). As part of this process, the enzymes convert some of the starch in the oats into sugar, similar to how the human body converts starch to sugar during digestion. Since these sugars are a result of our production process, the FDA considers them to be added, which is why they’re labeled as “added” sugars on our nutrition panels. Sugar is found in lots of foods, including cow’s milk. Our non-flavored oatmilks contain 7g sugar per 8oz serving, which is less than the amount of sugar in cow’s milk.

Oatly is doing a few really clever things here that we should call out:

“the enzymes convert some of the starch in the oats into sugar, similar to how the human body converts starch to sugar during digestion”

An enzyme is just a protein that organisms create to help with certain biochemical reactions, like breaking down starch into sugar as Oatly says. The sugar industry has used enzymes for years to aid in certain formulations, especially when the sugar needs to be very refined. It’s worth mentioning that sugar processing enzymes are also used to make high-fructose corn syrup, the sweetener in Coca-Cola.

Oatly is comparing their process to human digestion to make you think that means it’s a totally natural, healthy thing, but it’s just marketing-speak. 

“Sugar is found in lots of foods, including cow’s milk. Our non-flavored oatmilks contain 7g sugar per 8oz serving, which is less than the amount of sugar in cow’s milk.”

Oatly compares their sugar to the sugar in cow’s milk, but they’re not the same sugar. Lactose, the sugar in cow’s milk, has a GI of 46. Since the GI is a measure of how much of a negative response your body has to certain sugars, the 7g of sugar in Oatly with its 100+ GI is actually potentially worse than the 12g of sugar in whole milk with a 46 GI. We can use something called the “glycemic load” to measure this, which gives us a GL for the sugar in 8oz of Oatly of 7.35, and a GL for the sugar in 8oz of whole milk of 5.52. Oatly’s glycemic load is about 33% higher than milk’s is!

Oatly has employed some clever marketing to hide the fact that you’re spiking your blood sugar every time you add it to your coffee. And considering the extensive health concerns associated with adding unnecessary sugar to your diet, it’s hard to argue their main ingredient is healthy or made for humans. 

What about their second ingredient? 

The canola oil

Oatly’s second ingredient after the oat base is “low erucic acid rapeseed oil” which is another name for canola oil. The canola oil is the secret ingredient that gives it its milk-like consistency: 

“In the same way that cream may be added to milk to give it varying levels of fat, Oatly adds a plant-based canola oil to provide fat content.” (source).

When you drink oat milk, you’re mostly drinking oats, water, sugar, and canola oil. Sugar isn’t healthy for anyone. But what about the canola? 

The evidence for the harms of canola oil is still in its early days….

Divinations: Read the full article here