The oat milk trend took off at the start of the pandemic, when grocery stores reportedly sold out of the plant-based drink when coffee drinkers were forced to make their own brew at home.
Oat drinks are the latest “it” beverage in the plant-based beverage fad, much like almond, soy and rice drinks before it, says Stephanie Clark, a dairy food scientist and nutritionist at Iowa State University.
Yet Clark stresses that, from a nutritional perspective, oat drinks and other plant-based alternatives can’t compete with the unique blend of 13 essential vitamins and micronutrients that you get from real milk and dairy.
“I want to make clear that I’m not against plant-based products,” Clark says. “What I don’t like is when the (food marketers) masquerade as if they are equivalent to dairy, because they’re not.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines milk as a dairy beverage that comes from a healthy, lactating cow, Clark notes.
In contrast, oat beverages and other plant-based drinks are manufactured in factories. Oats are ground up, mixed with water and filtered to remove the grittiness and mimic the mouthfeel of real milk, Clark says.
“A bunch of sugar is also added to most (plant-based drinks) because oats aren’t palatable on their own. They don’t taste good. We always add something to (oats) to make them taste better,” Clarks says.
Oat milk and plant-based drinks are also fortified with calcium and other vitamins and minerals so they more closely mimic real milk nutritionally.
However, Clark says these added vitamins often end up unused at the bottom of the beverage carton.
Plus, these nutrients aren’t as bioavailable – or easily absorbed by our bodies – as compared to the naturally existing nutrients in real milk and dairy.
Real milk offers 13 essential nutrients, including calcium, magnesiusm, vitamin B12, phosphorus and high-quality protein, that plant-based beverages don’t naturally provide, Clark says.
Protein, in particular, helps prevent muscle loss as we age and aids in weight management, by helping us feel fuller longer.
Real milk offers about 8 grams of protein per 1 cup serving. In comparison, oat drinks contain 3 grams of protein per 1 cup serving.
Oat drinks are also higher in carbohydrates and added sugars, with 16 grams of carbs per 1 cup serving in oat drinks compared to 12 grams for dairy milk.
Yes, real dairy has slightly more saturated fat and cholesterol than plant-based beverages. However, Clark says it’s a myth that all fats are bad for our health.
In particular, research has repeatedly shown that dairy fats don’t cause weight gain or hurt our cardiovascular health - and may actually be protective of heart health, Clark says.
“It’s good to have some plant-based (fats) in our diet because they have some unsaturated fats that have been associated with positive health outcomes,” Clark says. “But we have plenty of evidence that dairy products are associated with positive health outcomes as well. … We need a variety of fats and nutrients in our diet.”
And as for weight gain, Clark said it’s not real milk that is adding calories to our diets. It’s the pastry we order with the coffee, or the chocolate syrup in the latte, or added sugars in general and too-big portion sizes.
“It’s about making good food choices throughout the day ...,” Clark says. “Do not stress about the milk that you choose as the base of your beverage.”
Clark says if you have a dairy allergy, then plant-based alternatives are a good choice. And if you’re allergic to cow’s milk, then maybe try goat or sheep dairy foods.
And for those of us who are lactose intolerant, you could try fermented dairy products, like kefir, which are nutritious choices without the lactose.
“I strongly believe that dairy should be part of our diet, and everything (in our diets) in moderation,” Clark says.