If You Haven't Tried Oatly (Oat Milk), You Really Should

©. Oatly

We caught up with founder Bjorn Oste to learn more about the plant-based 'milk' of the moment.

Everyone from fellow TreeHugger Melissa to my vegan and/or lactose intolerant friends have been raving about Oatly, a milk alternative that's made from good old robust, resilient oats.

As someone who has been trying to cut my cholesterol through plant-centric eating, I've been intrigued to give it a try. So when I got a chance to catch up with Oatly founder and board member Bjorn Oste—now the CEO of Good Idea Drinks—I jumped at the chance to discuss the secret to Oatly's success. We started by discussing the relative environmental benefits of oats and oat milk, compared to other alternatives:

Oat milk is going to compare favorably to all nut milks, legume-based milks, and dairy-based milks too. And that's simply because growing grains is significantly more efficient in terms of water use, land use, and carbon dioxide emissions than any of these other sources. In California, for example, a huge amount of water is used to irrigate the almond crop. The almond industry is trying hard to improve that equation, but there are certain fundamental water requirements that mean they only have so much room for improvement. Grains don’t have that problem, particularly hardy grains like oats.

Bjorn also noted that oats are a particularly favorable crop because they fit in well as part of a crop rotation. Typically, however, oats have not fetched a high price for farmers due to their use as animal feed—meaning that, by growing oats, they are sacrificing financial margins in favor of nurturing soil health. Creating direct consumer demand for oats, says Bjorn, is one way we can ensure better soil management on farms.

Given the growth in 'flexitarianism' and interest in vegetarian and vegan foods among non-vegetarians and vegans, I asked Bjorn whether the company's success was about appealing to the purists, or a broader, more mainstream market:

Once upon a time we targeted those who needed an alternative—whether that was for health reasons, or ethical reasons, or whatever—but we quickly won that category and had to go broader. We knew we had a proposition that if we eliminate the stigma, we have the opportunity to pitch ourselves as a drink that's not just the equivalent of dairy-based milk, but is actually a better choice in terms of functionality, taste and health. The ethical and environmental dimensions are just a bonus. A very large percentage of the regular consumer also consumes dairy.

In fact, says Bjorn, this strategy has proved so successful that Oatly's best selling product in Scandinavia—a cream product—actually ranks higher than all dairy products in the same category: "There's no way that could have happened if we were appealing to the hardcore ethical consumer alone."

As someone who has followed with interest the development of both bleeding veggie burgers, and also dairy- and meat-analogs that are more about staying true to their plant-based ingredients, I ask Bjorn about his views on the new breed of hyperrealistic "clean meat". It turns out he feels pretty strongly on this subject:

You can’t fake it. Oatly recreates the experience of drinking milk for a lot of people, and it provides a functional and nutritional replacement that works in baking and cooking. But you wouldn't mistake it for dairy-based milk. It tastes like oats, and most of our consumers prefer it to dairy once they get used to it. We're seeing lots of people converting to the barista version in their lattes or cappuccinos simply because they find that the flavor profile is a much better addition to coffee than dairy-based milk ever was. It just takes a little while to shift our palates.

While the world is now full of high-tech milk alternatives made from pea proteins and the like, Bjorn is a firm believer in the fact that consumers should be able to intuitively understand what it is they are drinking. Oats, he points out, have been consumed by humans for centuries; we have a cultural history with them, and that impacts how we process the idea of oat milk as an alternative to dairy. Pea protein, on the other hand, involves a convoluted and obscure manufacturing process that most consumers are going to have a hard time wrapping their heads around.

Soon after my conversation with Bjorn, I finally had a chance to try Oatly and I must say I was immediately hooked. In fact, as someone who has not drunk straight milk for years—simply because a glass of milk doesn't really appeal to me—I was surprised to find myself regularly hitting up the fridge for a glass of oat milk, straight up, with no sweeteners or anything else added. Did it taste like milk? Absolutely not. But it tasted delicious, and I'm already sad that I've drained the carton and can't seem to find the time to visit Target for some more.