Originally published November 7, 2019 on CBC
By Alex Soloducha
The latest star among non-dairy milk products comes from one of Canada’s most underrated crops: oats.
Canadians are consuming about 20 per cent less dairy milk than they were a decade ago, according to Statistics Canada. In that time, people have turned to many non-dairy, or plant-based, milk alternatives: soy, almond, coconut, cashew, even rice.
Now, oat milk appears to be having a moment.
It started in Sweden with a brand called Oatly, which was introduced to the Canadian market about two years ago. In the last year alone, sales of oat milk have increased more than 250 per cent, while sales of soy, coconut and rice milk have gone down. Oat milk now claims three per cent of refrigerated non-dairy beverage sales.
If you drink a glass of oat milk, chances are it contains oats grown in Saskatchewan. The province is the largest producer of oats in Canada, which is the largest exporter of oats in the world. And people are starting to take pride in it.
“I don’t think that being a milk farmer is something that’s really been considered by a lot of oat producers before,” said Chris Rundel, who grows oats on about half of his land near Foam Lake, Sask.
“But as the market grows and that demand increases, and as the market figures out exactly what it wants out of oat milk, then producers in Saskatchewan and all oat producers will find the tools that we need to produce the product that people are looking for.”
Rundel, who is a board member with the Prairie Oat Growers Association, isn’t surprised that the product has caught on. But he said it’s “kind of exciting to see it being a little bit more in the spotlight as a trendy food product or alternative.”
Oat milk is traditionally made by soaking oats and blending the oats with water. Then, the mixture is strained to separate the milk from the oats.
The big brands use an enzymatic process to cook the oats, and they say that results in a sweeter milk with more protein and fibre.
Vancouver company Earth’s Own makes about 99 per cent of the oat milk sold in Canada: $7.1 million worth in 2018.
Company president Rex Sheehy said people who aren’t interested in drinking pea or soy milk are more open to oats because they are already on their breakfast table.
“Oats is something that they eat, they consume every day, they know it’s healthy and, for us, it was an opportunity to also get a product that was very nutritious and healthy and tasted fantastic,” said Sheehy. “So we say it ticks all the boxes.”
Oat milk’s toughest competitor is almond milk. Out of the $216 million worth of chilled non-dairy milks sold in Canada in the past year, $137 million was almond milk.
But oat milk is more environmentally friendly than its counterparts on most points.
According to researchers Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemece from Oxford University, it takes 628 litres of water to create one litre of cow’s milk. Almond milk takes about half that, while one litre of oat milk requires only 48 litres of water.
Each litre of oat milk also uses 10 times less land than the production of dairy milk.
According to Poore and Nemece’s research, switching to oat milk cuts down on emissions. Its production creates 72 per cent less greenhouse gas than cow’s milk, but a bit more than almond milk.
Oat milk is also billed as local. Many oats are milled in Saskatchewan and then turned into milk at the Earth’s Own plant in Quebec.
“We’re looking to make sure there are no air miles, or as little as we can get on the products,” said Sheehy. “We want to support local — it’s way more sustainable.”
Grain Millers Canada Corp., a company based in Yorkton, Sask., supplies milled oats to both Earth’s Own and Oatly for use in making milk. Bill Liska, sales manager of oats at Grain Millers, said the company is now building a new oat milling facility in Yorkton, pushed by demand across North America.
Liska lives in Minneapolis and has witnessed the rapid growth of oat milk, which hit the U.S. market earlier. Its popularity has led to line extensions including oat milk creamer, yogurt and even ice cream. Some cafés have sold out of the product and customers have paid up to four times the sales price for cartons online.
Liska said he didn’t predict the oat milk craze, and even thought the idea was a bit far-fetched. But his mind changed when he tasted it.
“Some people may think it’s just another alternative to soy or almond or various nuts or flax, but once you’ve tried oat milk, you’re going to try it again,” Liska said.
To cater to cafés, multiple oat milk brands have launched barista blends, designed to mimic the properties of whole fat milk.
Victoria Bohay, longtime barista and manager of the Naked Bean Espresso Bar and Cafe in Regina, said oat milk is much easier to use than almond milk, coconut and soy.
“It’s the best alternative that I’ve found here for coffee. It’s nice and thick. It’s creamy,” Bohay said. “It froths really nice, gives you that foam that you want on a latte or even makes a nice cappuccino.”
Bohay, who is allergic to dairy, turned to a completely plant-based lifestyle five years ago and said she has tried many other alternatives. She said she initially brought oat milk into her café when she found out that it was relatively environmentally friendly.
“I’ve converted a lot of people into drinking oat milk at this point. I’m an oat milk pusher,” said Bohay. “I make everybody try it. I always tell them I’ll remake their drink if they don’t like it, and I’ve never had to remake a drink, so I guess that says a bit about it. They just keep ordering it again and again.”
But is oat milk healthy?
It has half as much protein as cow’s milk, so it doesn’t serve as a direct replacement. Nutrients such as calcium are not naturally occurring in oats, so the milk is fortified.
Melanie Rozwadowski, a registered dietitian and University of Saskatchewan professor, said that oat milk should be considered a refreshing beverage, not a “milk.”
“If a person is believing that it’s replacing milk, whether it’s for themselves or their children … then they should be aware that the product should be fortified with these nutrients of concern: B12, calcium, vitamin D and, perhaps, depending on the rest of the diet, protein as well,” Rozawadowski said.
“Depending on the rest of the diet, that might be irrelevant, or it could make the difference.”
Like many other unsweetened non-dairy milks, oat milk is lower in carbs, sugar and saturated fat than cow’s milk, and contains zero cholesterol.
From Foam Lake, Rundel has been following the research and development around oat milk products, and he’s excited by what he’s seeing.
“It’s a really viable alternative to cow’s milk,” he said. “And there’s lots more that can be done with that. I think we’re really just kind of starting to scratch the surface of the options for it.”
He’s equally thrilled by his potential role in this new trend.
“It feels good to be producing something that’s genuinely needed and that can generally help people in our country and all over the world,” said Rundel. “Because products from Saskatchewan … go all over the world. It’s really exciting to be a part of that.”