Q: Is oat milk healthier than other milk alternatives? I don’t drink regular milk so I want to make sure that I’m getting the same nutrition.
If you’re lactose-intolerant, vegan or simply trying to eat more plant-based foods, there’s no shortage of cow’s milk alternatives to choose from. You’ll find non-dairy milks made from soy, almonds, hemp seeds, coconut, peas and more.
The latest entrant to the dairy-free milk scene is oat milk and, owing to its creamy texture, slightly sweet flavour and nutrient profile, it’s gaining popularity. Environmentally-conscious eaters are also becoming aware of the whole-grain beverage.
What is oat milk?
This dairy-free, nut-free, soy-free alternative is made by soaking steel-cut oats or whole oats in water and then blending the mixture. The solids are then strained out to produce the liquid milk.
If oat milk is made using gluten-free oats (check the ingredient list to be sure), it’s suitable for people who have a gluten intolerance. Oats are naturally gluten-free, but if they’re processed in a plant that also processes gluten-containing grains, they may become contaminated.
Commercial oat milks can contain additives including emulsifiers that keep the oats and water blended (vegetable oil, gellar gum), phosphates that regulate acidity and vitamins and minerals.
Unlike nuts, oats absorb water easily so that when they’re blended with water, more of the oats end up in the liquid portion. That means that oat milk has more protein and fibre than nut milks do.
One cup of Earth’s Own So Fresh unsweetened oat milk, for instance, has 110 calories, 2 g of fibre, 4 g of protein, 18 g of carbohydrate (6 g from natural sugars) and 2.5 g of fat.
In comparison, one cup of unsweetened almond milk contains 30 to 35 calories, 1 g of fibre, 1 g of protein, 1 g of carbohydrate and 2 to 3 g of fat.
While oat milk delivers more protein than almond, cashew, macadamia and coconut milks, soy milk and pea milk have more, offering 8 g per one cup (similar to cow’s milk). Oat milk provides 2 to 4 g of protein per cup, depending on the brand.
Oat milk and soy milk both have 2 g of fibre in each serving, one extra gram than almond milk (not a big difference). Coconut, cashew and rice milks don’t have any fibre.
Unlike other milk alternatives, oat milk contains beta-glucan, a form of soluble fibre that’s been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol in the bloodstream. Keep in mind, however, that you’d need to drink at least three cups of oat milk each day to affect your cholesterol level.
The higher carbohydrate content of oat milk (and rice milk) means that, in each serving, it has more calories than unsweetened plant milks made from nuts, peas and soybeans.
In Canada, fortified milk alternatives – whether made from grains, nuts or soy – will have added vitamins A, D, B2 (riboflavin) and B12 as well as calcium and zinc, making them nutritionally closer to cow’s milk.
When it comes to calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12, one cup of a fortified plant-based beverage supplies 390 mg, 360 IU (international units) and 1.2 mcg (one-half of a day’s worth for adults), respectively.
Better for the planet?
If you’re concerned about the environmental impact of your diet, consider the non-dairy milk you add to your shopping cart.
Research published last year in the journal Science, concluded that when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use, oat milk and soy milk have the lowest environmental impact. Cow’s milk has the highest.
According to the Water Footprint Network, a global network of organizations and individuals committed to manage water resources, oats require six times less water to grow than almonds or cashews. Pea milk also has a considerably smaller water footprint than almond or cashew milk.
Read labels to know what your plant-based beverage provides and what it doesn’t.
If you’re replacing dairy in your diet, consider protein. Soy and pea milks have the most, followed by oat milk.
To get a vitamin and mineral content that is similar to cow’s milk, choose a fortified product (most are). If it’s fortified, the nutrition label will state a daily value of 25 to 30 per cent for calcium.
Avoid added sugars by opting for an unsweetened milk alternative.
While non-dairy milks provide nutrition, keep in mind that they are processed foods.
To get the most nutrients, along with plenty of disease-fighting natural plant compounds, include the original whole foods – e.g. oatmeal, cashews, almonds, hemp seeds, edamame, tofu, dried peas – in your regular diet.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.
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