Is Oat Milk Healthy? Benefits, Downsides, Nutrition | The PNW Clinic
April 7, 2023
Dairy-free milks are becoming more and more popular, and with so many options it can be hard to know which is the best choice for you.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that alternative milk consumption has risen almost 15% each year from 2018 to 2021. This is similar to the amount that traditional cow’s milk consumption is falling (1).
Today, our online dietitians take a closer look at one of the current popular and trending plant-based milks – oat milk. This article will dive into the benefits and downsides of oat milk from a health and nutrition perspective, as well as other factors that might influence your choice between oat and other alternatives.
So what is actually in oat milk?
To no surprise, oat milk is usually made from a mixture of oats and water (2).
For the health-conscious consumer, the mindset of ‘the less ingredients, the better’ may persuade them that plant-based milks, including oat, made from just the base ingredient and water are the best option health-wise.
While oats are full of fibre and carbohydrates, the milk version of this grain can lack the minerals and vitamins found in cow’s milk (3).
What should you look for on a nutrition label?
Plant milks are often fortified with micronutrients – the vitamins and minerals that do not naturally occur are added to increase their nutritional value.
The most important ingredient to look for when reading the nutrition label of alternative milks is calcium. Other bonus ingredients some milks are fortified with include vitamin D, vitamin B12, iodine and magnesium (4).
What brand should you buy?
Brands of oat milk that are fortified with calcium and available at large Australian supermarket chains include:
- So Good Oat Milk No Added Sugar (5)
- So Good Oat Milk Chocolate (6)
- Vitasoy Oat Milky (7)
- Vitasoy Oat Milk Unsweetened (8)
- Chobani Oatmilk Original (9)
- Chobani Oatmik Zero Sugar (10)
- Other Chobani Oatmilk options (11)
- Oatly Oat Milk (12)
The Chobani, So Good and Vitasoy Oat Milky milks are also fortified with vitamin D.
The PNW Clinic article “What Plant-Based Milks Have Calcium” provides more examples of calcium fortified plant-based milks, including oat milk.
The protein content of oat milk is about half as much as an equal amount of cow’s milk. This means choosing an oat milk that is also fortified with protein would be beneficial (4,14).
This alternative milk option is also low in saturated fats.
Along with added/fortification of vitamins and minerals, oat milk can often contain additives and thickeners that aim to improve taste and texture.
While many organic and/or non-fortified plant-based milks often do not contain these additives, the benefit of added minerals like calcium may outweigh any cons of additives – this is up to the individual consumer. These additives can be seen in the ingredients list on the milk carton.
One additive that is easy to avoid is added sugar. Some brands, such as So Good, make an oat milk alternative with no added sugar (5).
How does this compare to other plant-based milk alternatives?
Like many other alternative milk options, oat milk is free from dairy, lactose and soy.
It has the added bonus of being free from nuts which sets it apart from most alternative milks that are made from nuts.
Unlike cow’s milk and most of its alternatives, oat milk does contain gluten – this means it is not suitable for those with gluten intolerances or Coeliac’s disease (14).
Oat milk has the highest fibre content of the common alternative milk options and one of the lowest fat contents.
The high carbohydrate content of oats makes this milk naturally sweet – it is suggested as a good swap for cow’s milk in baking for its sweetness (14).
Possibly the most popular characteristic of oat milk is its creaminess. Many people choose to use oat milk in their coffee as it froths better than other alternatives (15).
Sustainability and the environment
One common reason for swapping out dairy milk with a plant-based alternative is for environmental reasons (15).
More than 15% of annual greenhouse gas emissions in Australia come from agriculture and farming.
One-fifth of these emissions come specifically from dairy farming – most is from the cows/livestock themselves, then a small amount of gasses released are from electricity and farming processes (16).
Oat milk produces 80% less emissions than cow’s milk and uses ten times less water (17).
In fact, oat milk produces (on average) the least emissions and uses the lowest amount of energy to make of all current plant-based milk alternatives (18).
If sustainability is most important for you when choosing an alternative milk, oat is the top choice.
Recently, there has been growing concern for the treatment of livestock in the dairy industry (19).
Large institutions in Australia and internationally have focused research on this area, and companies producing ‘ethical milk’ are on the rise.
Studies have found that more harm occurs to livestock when used for milk production than in meat production (20). This includes the separation of newborn calves from their mothers so that the milk can be sold (21).
As a plant-based product, oat milk production does not involve animals.
Swapping to a plant-based alternative like oat milk is becoming more popular with people who do not support the treatment of animals in milk production processes (22).
How do I know if oat milk is right for me?
When considering swapping to oat milk or a plant-based alternative milk, consider the following:
- Discussing the change with a dietitian, like the online dietitians at the PNW Clinic.
- Dietitians will be able to assist in making sure your transition to a new dairy alternative supports your health
- May be able to recommend particular products or foods/drinks to make sure you meet nutrient requirements.
- Advice on reading nutrition labels
- Do your research
- If ethics and/or sustainability is important to you, search the internet for a brand of oat milk that fits your values.
- Consider the cost and product longevity of oat milk
- Shelf-life is longer than cow’s milk, as can be purchased as a UHT/cupboard friendly product
- Some trendy or upmarket brands can be more expensive than home-brand cow’s milk – consider buying fortified products when on sale in bulk as they will last in the pantry.
BOOK IN A FREE DISCOVERY CALL WITH OUR DIETITIANS
There are many things that may influence someone’s decision to switch to oat milk.
Labelling a food or drink as “healthy” is not simple – in the case of oat milk, it is important to consider your own body and health, as well as the differences between different milk options.
Oat milk does not contain the same nutrients as cow’s milk. This means choosing a fortified product is important to make sure you are still getting the important minerals and vitamins your body needs.
It may be beneficial to speak with a dietitian, like the online dietitians at the PNW Clinic, before swapping out milks entirely.
A healthcare professional can provide information and advice about how to include oat milk in your diet in a balanced way.
Oat milk can be considered more sustainable than cow’s milk and other milk alternatives due to its low water use and greenhouse gas emissions in production.
If animal welfare is important to you, oat milk may be the right choice as it contains no animal products and does not harm animals when producing it.
Ultimately, the decision to include oat milk in your diet is individual. Being well informed about oat milk as a whole is a positive step towards making the decision that is right for you.
Author: Lilee Powell-Lunney
Reviewer: PNW Dietitian Jade Wrigley