Is oat milk good or bad for you? Here are the pros and cons
More and more of us are turning away from traditional cow’s milk, and it’s easy to understand why. With 2.5 million of us in the UK now vegan, plant-based alternatives to dairy products are increasingly growing in popularity.
But you don’t have to have an entirely plant-based diet to be wooed by new and fresh alternatives to milk. A 2021 study found that more than one in three British people now drink plant-based milk. Oat milk was the most popular plant-based milk of choice in 2020, with consumers spending £146 million on the non-dairy substitute that same year.
However, in more recent months, oat milk has been criticised for not being the ‘healthy’ alternative to cow’s milk we were initially lead to believe. Some nutritionists have criticised oat milk for causing huge glucose spikes in people knocking it back with their morning coffee. Meanwhile, others point towards the higher sugar content compared to regularly dairy (250ml of whole milk has 11g of naturally occurring sugars and no added sugar, Meanwhile, oat milk has 15g of carbs and 7g of added sugars).
As an additional sucker punch, oat milk is also considered to be fairly damaging to the environment; as Jayne Buxton notes in her comprehensive 2022 survey of vegan food, The Great Plant-Based Con, when the metric used is CO2 per micronutrient content, the footprint of dairy milk is less than a third of that of oat milk (we should add, for clarity, cow’s milk is not exactly an environmental saviour, either).
So what’s the deal, here? Shall we ditch our oat milk in favour for the classic white stuff? Or are there better non-dairy alternatives we need to be putting on top of our cereal every morning? Cosmopolitan UK spoke to nutritionists to find out the truth.
What is oat milk made out of?
Registered nutritionist Jenna Hope explains: “Oat milk is typically made using a syrup made from oats which is then combined with water. Many of the most popular oat milks on the market also contain oils, emulsifiers and stabilisers too.”
In fact, it’s possible to make your own oat milk at home, agrees Caroline Hind, Registered Nutritional Therapist at Nutrable, by soaking oats in water and sieving the liquid.
“In reality, many oat milk products contain additives such as artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils and preservatives,” she tells Cosmopolitan UK. “It’s worth reading your labels to find a product that’s mostly oats and water.”
Is oat milk good for you?
Well… not especially. When you drink oat milk, you’re effectively knocking back starchy water, which is very carbohydrate heavy.
“The concern about sugar in oat milk is not so much about added sugar as about the glucose content of oats themselves,” Hind says. “The high starch content in oats breaks down into glucose in the gut, passing into the bloodstream as glucose and raising blood sugar.”
These blood sugar spikes, over time, can contribute to a diabetes risk.
“There is also concern that many oat milks contain additives that can trigger inflammation and disturb metabolism, the gut microbiome and other aspects of health,” Hind adds.
Comparatively, there can be between 15 and 20g of carbs per glass of oat milk compared to around 8g of carbs in a glass of cow’s milk. It also has 2.5g of protein per glass, about 4g of unsaturated fat, and about 2g of fibre. Meanwhile, cow’s milk is much richer in protein, containing between 8 and 10g per glass.
Should we replace cow’s milk with oat milk?
On the whole, both nutritionists agree that cow’s milk is the more nutritious option.
“Dairy milk consumption is associated with better metabolic and cardiovascular health,” Hind explains, while Hope argues the cow’s milk is much higher in micronutrients such as phosphorus (something that helps with the formation of bones and teeth), calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins and potassium than oat milk.
However, Hind adds, oat milk is a more palatable milk alternative for people that struggle with dairy.
“Its main advantage is its taste,” she says. “It’s a reasonable alternative if used in small amounts, for example, in coffee.”
Is almond milk better than oat milk?
Of course, oat milk is not the only alternative milk product out there. Almond milk is becoming increasingly popular.
“Unsweetened almond milk is lower in sugar and higher in protein than oat milk,” Hope explains, for those worried about health impacts.
However, as Hind warns: “Not only are many people sensitive to nuts in the diet, but almond milk can be high in oxalates, which can trigger issues such as kidney stones.”
If you are looking to pick a milk alternative, Hind suggests lactose-free cow’s milk, or coconut milk. Elsewhere, Hope suggests soy milk, as it’s the most similar to cow’s milk in terms of nutritional value: both contain similar amounts of calcium and vitamin B12 but a glass of soya milk provides more riboflavin (a B vitamin that helps the body to convert food into energy) and vitamin D.
No matter what milk alternative you choose, it’s important that you seek a carton that is free from artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils, preservatives and starchy fillers if you’re looking to make a health-conscious choice.