It’s quite possible that we are in the golden age of alternative milks, otherwise known as “mylks.” Lactose-free options were once few and far between, and not always tasty. Now there’s a wide selection of mylks from a variety of plant-based foods, and oat milk might be the latest and most-hyped addition to a growing list.
But is oat milk healthy? If you’re looking for an alternative to dairy milk due to lactose intolerance or other health reasons, nutritional value likely plays a role in your choice. So let’s take a look at exactly what oat milk is and how it stacks up to other options.
What Is Oat Milk?
Oat milk comes from oats, or Avena sativa. It’s made by soaking rolled or steel-cut oats in water, then straining the milk through cheesecloth. Commercial oat milk, however, was first developed in the 1990s by Rickard Oste, a food science professor at Lund University in Sweden.
Oste developed an industrial process that was able to break down oat starches and separate the bran from the oats. The process allows the milk to retain some of the oats’ naturally occurring macronutrients, and provides it a thicker and more milk-like texture.
Homemade versions, on the other hand, lack the nutrition of industrial oat milk and can also have a water-like consistency.
Oat milk is an appealing option for vegans, people with lactose intolerance, and those who avoid dairy for ethical reasons. It’s also more nutritionally dense than other dairy-milk alternatives, while providing a texture and consistency that is much closer to dairy milk.
Another benefit is that it is grown in an arguably more sustainable fashion than other non-dairy milks, as oats require about six times less water to grow than almonds or cashews.
Oat Milk Nutrition
Although oat milk comes from oats, drinking a glass of oat milk isn’t the same thing as eating a bowl of oats. While oats are 100% whole grains packed with nutrients like manganese, iron, magnesium, thiamin, and folate, you lose a lot of them during the processing of oat milk. That said, it may still be more nutritious than other forms of alternative milk in some ways.
Like other milk alternatives, oat milk is fortified with certain minerals and vitamins (e.g. calcium, phosphorus, and vitamins D and A) to give it a little boost. It also contains nutrients like fiber that other milks do not. All commercial alternative milks are enriched with nutrients to achieve a profile closer to that of cow’s milk.
Oat milk tends to have more calories and protein than other forms of alternative milk, with soy as an exception—it has more protein. Oat milk has more calories than cow’s milk but, once again, has less protein.
One cup of unsweetened, fortified “Oatly” oat milk, which is the brand developed by Oste, contains:
|Nutrient||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Vitamin B12||1.2 mcg||50%|
|Vitamin D||3.6 mcg||20%|
|Vitamin A||160 mcg||20%|
From a caloric standpoint, here is how oat milk generally compares to other options (all unsweetened):
The extra calories you see in oat milk are, for the most part, attributed to its significantly higher carbohydrate content than other milks. Because it retains some of its natural nutrition (oats are carbohydrates), it holds onto more of its natural sugars (about 16 grams per cup).
Oat Milk Benefits
Thanks to the absence of allergens like nuts, soy, and cow’s milk protein, oat milk is ideal for those with strict dietary requirements.
Since oats are naturally free of gluten and the dairy milk sugar lactose, it is also suitable for celiacs and the lactose intolerant. However, if you’re sensitive to gluten, reading oat milk labels is essential.
Although oats are naturally gluten-free, many manufacturing facilities process them with the same equipment as gluten-containing grains. Because cross-contamination can occur, it’s highly advisable to select oat milks that are certified gluten-free.
2. Milk-Like Texture and Taste
Regardless of your dietary reasons for avoiding dairy, oat milk may help satisfy your desire for a fuller-bodied mylk.
Unlike most nut milks, oat milk does not curdle when added to coffee or tea and also does a better job of creating froth. It can add a degree of thickness to smoothies as well.
Because of its higher carbohydrate content, some suggest it offers a sweetness that is missing in other unsweetened plant-based milks.
3. Vitamin B12 Content
Enriched oat milk is a good source of vitamin B12, a nutrient lacking in the diets of non-meat eaters.
Also known as cobalamin, vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that helps make and regulate DNA, while also contributing to the formation of red blood cells.
It’s also necessary for proper function of the nerves and brain.
Adults should be getting between 25 and 38 grams of fiber per day, but the average American adult only gets about 15 grams. Therefore, the seemingly scant serving of 2 grams per cup of oat milk is actually greater than it looks.
Fiber can help improve digestion and gut bacterial populations, as well as contribute to lower cholesterol, reduced blood pressure, and improved heart health.
Oat milk is a great source of beta-glucans, a type of soluble fiber that is noted for its ability to reduce cholesterol—especially bad “LDL” cholesterol—that may lower the risk for heart disease.
One study on men indicated that drinking three cups of oat milk per day for five weeks was able to reduce LDL by five percent.
5. Vitamin D-Fortified
Another common nutrient deficiency in America is vitamin D. Although other forms of milk are fortified with this important vitamin, oat milk can be a good option for those who prefer its sweeter taste or with food allergies.
Vitamin D and calcium—also found in oat milk—work together to support bone health. Vitamin D helps your body better absorb calcium, which is essential for building strong bones.
Low vitamin D levels are also associated with depression, heart disease, and other chronic illness.
How to Use Oat Milk
You can use oat milk the same way you would dairy milk—poured over cereal, blended with fresh fruit and yogurt for smoothies, or added to your favorite pancake mix.
Because of its similarity to cow’s milk in texture, it may perform slightly better in baking recipes than nut milk. It’s also popular in teas and coffees, providing a bit of a creamier consistency than nut milk would.
Quality will depend on whether you’re making your own milk or buying it from a store. Homemade oat milk will likely be thinner—more like a nut milk—than store-bought varieties, something to be mindful of in use. Many commercial brands also contain unhealthy preservatives, additives, and added sugar, so always check the label.
When it comes to taste, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest there is a hardly a noticeable difference to cow’s milk when used in sweet or savory dishes. Further, because it has similar properties to low-fat cow’s milk, oat milk is also fitting for achieving that creamy effect in soups, mashed potatoes, or curries.
Who Shouldn’t Drink Oat Milk?
Most oat-milk options are safe for everybody and, as we’ve noted, provide a great choice for people with allergies or intolerance to nuts, soy, cow’s milk protein, or lactose. It can even be safe for celiacs, provided it is made with certified gluten-free oats.
Though uncommon, some may be allergic or sensitive to a protein in oats called avenin. In which case, oat milk would not be the right choice.
Since homemade oat milk will not be fortified with nutrients like vitamins B12 and D or calcium, it’s important to get an adequate intake from other food sources. It’s also important to note that oat milk is not an appropriate substitute for breast or cow’s milk in infants and small children.
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