Here in New York, it’s prime iced coffee season. And in the year 2018, the caffeine-obsessed and dairy-free among us have more options than ever before with which to dilute our cold brew. Soy and almond milk are now available in nearly every grocery store in America, after being fringe choices throughout the aughts. Then there are the more outré contenders: hemp milk, coconut milk, or peanut milk are all highly-lauded milk alternatives, but not very common options, at least not at your average café. And then, there’s oat milk: the big Kahuna of dairy substitutes that’s getting everybody talking.
A lot of the reason oat milk is suddenly everywhere has to do with a 25-year-old Swedish company called Oatly, which, as Quartz and The New York Times separately note, is now the leading brand of the dairy alternative in the U.S., thanks to a (kinda brilliant) marketing campaign. As the Times detailed in January, oat milk’s sleeper success is the result of Oatly’s introducing it through cafés first with a special “barista blend,” formulated with canola oil, that froths like dairy milk, in a way that other plant-based dairy alternatives don’t. Baristas then spread the word about the new product organically, converting non-dairy coffee drinkers even though the product was seldom available in stores. But over recent months, oat milk is increasingly convenient, not just in cafés, but at your friendly neighborhood grocery store.
But still, there is some confusion around oat milk. What does it taste like? How do you make it? And is it even good for you? Luckily, the answers to these questions are fairly uncomplicated. Oat milk is made by soaking oats in water for a period of time, blending the mixture until smooth, and then removing the oat solids. The result has a creamy texture that isn’t dissimilar from cow’s milk and a pleasantly neutral-rich taste. Oat milk has less protein than dairy milk or nut-based milks, per the Times, but it does have more heart-healthy soluble fiber and not too much sugar. Oatly notes on its website that their product is completely vegan, and contains no nuts, no gluten, and no GMOs (though it should be noted that the majority of scientists agree that GMOs are safe for human consumption). And of course, it blends well with coffee, which is kind of rare in the dairy-free landscape.
Oat milk isn’t perfect, of course, a fact of life that Oatly itself acknowledges. (For what it’s worth, other brands such as Elmhurst Milked also make oat milk, but they are similarly under the radar.) Compared with dairy milk or other plant-based alternatives, the stuff can get pricey: you can currently buy a six-pack of 32 oz containers for $25 on Oatly’s website, or $4.17ish each, compared to $3.71 for 64 oz of almond milk and $2.55 for 64 oz of regular dairy milk on Amazon. In a section titled “what might be less amazing,” Oatly is transparent about the fact that it adds dipotassium phosphate, a chemical additive that regulates acidity, to its oat milk. It also is not certified organic, though as a copywriter points out in a charmingly self-aware passage, “as a company we haven’t officially decided whether or not organic is better,” a sentiment echoed by a number of sustainability advocates, citing unclear regulations and impediments to access created by the “organic” label. But this transparency may also be part of the reason people are so down with the stuff.
On a broader level, the shift to oat milk may also coincide with a greater awareness around sustainability issues that nut-based milks present. Oats take far less water to produce than almonds do, and a 2013 study found that oat and soy milk were on par in terms of lower environmental impact, compared with almond or conventional dairy milk. Oatly’s milk is shelf-stable, too, which means it requires fewer resources to refrigerate it compared with dairy milk. (Most other nut milks are also shelf-stable, in contrast to dairy milk.)
But, to speak to the real reason why it’s everywhere all of a sudden, in my personal, oat milk-loving opinion, it has to do with the fact that it’s weird and delicious, two of my favorite things. It rounds out both a conventional coffee latte and a weird, adaptogenic lavender latte. It tastes like milk, but without having to think about how bad milk is for the planet. I am not vegan or dairy-free, nor am I allergic to nuts, nor do I have any other reason why I’d choose oat milk over all other milk varieties out there, other than I just really like it. And chances are, you’ll probably like it, too.