If you’re concerned about sustainability and wellness, chances are you’re a consumer of oat milk, the latest star in the alternative milk scene. Is oat milk popular in other countries? Who will lose as much dairy muscle into the alt-milk space?
Sponsored By American Express
Kira Bindrim hosts Quartz Obsession. She is an executive editor and works on global newsroom coverage. She is obsessed by reality TV.
Sarah Todd is a senior reporter at Quartz and Quartz at Work. She is obsessed by her dog, advice columns and plant sentience.
Sarah Todd’s article on Oatly’s IPO
The following sounds are used in this episode freesound.org:
Kira Bindrim: Walk into an American Starbucks these days, and you’ll find four different options for plant based milk. There’s almond milk, which was invented in 12th century Italy. Soy milk, which is from 14th-century China, can be purchased. There’s also coconut milk, which has been around for basically as long as coconuts. And then there’s the baby of the bunch, oat milk.
Oat milk is made from water and oats. It is then blended up, extracted the solids and treated with enzymes. It was developed in 1994 by a Swedish food scientist named Rickard Öste, who was researching lactose intolerance. Öste and his brother turned the product into a company Oatly, which last year booked $421 million in revenue, double its revenue from 2019. Oat milk is the second most popular plant-based milk in the United States. This success is due to the appeal of oat milk to a few key demographics, including eco-conscious consumers, foodies, as well as people with lactose intolerance.
But one group is not psyched about oat milk, and that’s the dairy industry. For years, it’s been trying to limit how companies like Oatly can package, label, and advertise their products. Oatly almost had to stop Oatly from describing oat milk cream as creamy at one point. These are not the most common debates. But they’re an important part of a massive movement to make plant based alternatives for foods whose production hurts our environment. It is time to question what constitutes real food. Who decides? At least some of the answers are found in the dairy aisle.
Quartz Obsession is a podcast that explores fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they can tell us about the global economic system. I’m your host Kira Bindrim. Today: Oat milk and why the dairy industry has become so dramatic.
Sarah Todd, a senior journalist at Quartz, is now joining me. She’s also based in New York so we’re together in the studio. I thought, Sarah, we might start by talking about what we’re drinking right now. Why don’t you tell the listener about it.
Sarah Todd:We are enjoying a pair oat maple lattes. I got them from a Park Slope coffeeshop. It is a semi-interesting tale. I thought I was going to pick it up at Starbucks. Kira, as you mentioned, has a partnership between Oatly and Starbucks. Oat milk is available everywhere. However, there was no Starbucks near where I was expecting it to be. I had to try a little independent coffee shop, and it was worth the risk. I was thinking. ‘Wll they or won’t they have oat milk?’ and advertised right on the sign outside was oat milk maple latte. So I knew that oatmilk has made it.
Kira Bindrim:It’s a complete reversal of fortunes. How would you describe the taste and texture of oat milk, then?
Sarah Todd:It is creamy and rich. It tastes more like whole milk than many of the other alternatives. But Kira, what do you think?
Kira Bindrim:This is actually my first experience with oatmilk. I am a diehard half and half person, like the one thing you definitely shouldn’t be putting in your coffee I am quite religious about. But it’s good. It is. There is just a little aftertaste of oat, which is to be expected but it’s sweet and it is creamy, which are the two things, over sugar, that I really need in my coffee.
Sarah Todd:It is exactly.
Kira Bindrim:Tell me about your interest in this topic. You’re not necessarily our chief milk reporter.
Sarah Todd: No, although I would say that I’m very interested in beverages, but specifically I got interested in Oatly because they are a very weird company. Toni Petersson is their CEO. They have a very divisive Super Bowl commercial that ran during this past year’s Super Bowl in which he was seen playing the keyboard in the middle of a field singing “wow, no cow”In a very off-key tone of voice. I was just curious about Oatly, and that led to a greater obsession with oatmilk as a whole.
Kira Bindrim: My first job ever when I was a sophomore in high school was an intern at Milk Pep, which is this like, well it’s probably a lobbying group, but it’s a marketing group that is funded by milk companies that is trying to promote drinking milk, and what this means is that, at the time remember the “Got Milk”Campaign was so large? They had a huge closet full of swag left over from the “Got Milk” campaign, so I had like twenty-five”Got Milk” posters at one point. Included, of course the Jonathan Taylor Thomas poster is highly sought-after. That’s a real highlight of my teens.
Sarah Todd:What did you do? “Got Milk”Are posters available?
Kira Bindrim: I think they’re gone now. That period was great.
Sarah Todd: Chobani recently aired a similar advertisement with a mustache featuring milk, as a sign of the changing times. a Timothée Chalamet look alike, which, why not the real Timothée Chalamet? I don’t know. But I think maybe they were trying to make a kind of meta statement like, the oat milk is like milk, but it’s not. This is like Timothée Chalamet, but he’s not, you know, they’re layers.
Kira Bindrim:Wow, that is a great trajectory.
Sarah Todd: Yeah, from JTT to Timothée.
Kira Bindrim:I want both. So let’s get a little bit into, like, the oat milk basics. Oat milk 101. One of the things that I thought was cool when we picked this topic is we probably could have gone into any of those milks—soy milk, coconut milk—and had an interesting story. We chose the newest one, and I think it is pretty cool. So what exactly is oatmilk? How do you make it yourself? Is it possible to make it? Give us a basic definition.
Sarah Todd:Yes, you can make it at home. I haven’t tried. But if you want to, here’s what you do. This is what the major producers do. You take oats and water and mix them together. Then you strain out the solids, you maybe do that once or twice, and then you refrigerate it and you’re done. Obviously the manufacturers have more processes, they’re adding enzymes, and they’re doing fancy things too, but that’s the gist. You can also add flavoring to your product. If you’re making it at home, you could add a little vanilla, that could be nice.
Kira Bindrim:Is this just milk? Are there other dairy alternatives that are oat-based, such as milk?
Sarah Todd:Yes, there are many. So, oat milk products are out there in numerous forms, they include oat yogurt, which you can call oatgert, if you’re so inclined. There’s oat ice cream, there’s oat whipped cream substitute. There are many different ways to use it. I think that as you mentioned with your latte, often there’s a little bit of an aftertaste of oats, but that’s not unpleasant so people can be into it.
Kira Bindrim: Oat cheese?
Sarah Todd: Oat cheese, I don’t know if there’s oat cheese yet (Editor’s note: yes, Oat cheese is available.). But that’s a good idea. Vegan cheese is a kind of the white whale for vegan products in general. It’s really hard to make fake cheese that tastes good. However, people are working towards it.
Kira Bindrim: As a half and half drinker my perception is that any alternative dairy, whichever of those other milks I’m choosing is healthier for me in some way. By choosing half and half, I’m actively choosing to be unhealthy. Is this correct? Is oatmilk healthier than milk?
Sarah Todd: Well, the interesting thing about healthy as an adjective is that it’s somewhat meaningless, actually, when you really start breaking down nutritional data.
Kira Bindrim:Keep going.
Sarah Todd:I mean, oat milk and alternative milks have their pros and cons just as dairy has its pros and cons. These trade-offs can be seen in the nutritional data for oat milk compared to regular milk. So oat milk has three grams of protein compared to cow’s milk, that typically has seven or eight grams of protein. It has a little bit of protein, but not much. It has some fiber, milk has none, that’s cool, you can get a tiny bit of fiber, although less fiber than you would have if you ate, say a bowl of oatmeal. They both have different sort of calcium and added vitamins that you need—milk has those naturally, oat milk and most other alternative milks just add them later in the process so you’re getting them both ways. From a nutritional standpoint, they’re both fine I would say. Where milk really has an advantage nutritionally is more when it comes to things like, you know, it’s gluten free. So that’s great if you have celiac. It’s also tree nut free, so if you have any kind of nut allergy, it’s safe. Another reason is that approximately 65% of the global population are lactose-intolerant. Oat milk might be a better choice if you have trouble digesting milk.
Kira Bindrim: So outside of the individual decision making part of this where you’re sort of making choices based on your health or if you’re lactose intolerant, are there any larger environmental or sustainability reasons that someone might want to choose oat milk or even any alternative milk over regular dairy?
Sarah Todd:Oat milk is a better choice than dairy for many reasons. One advantage is that dairy contributes a large amount to global carbon emissions. It accounts for about 4% of all global emission. Oat milk is much less carbon-intensive. It also uses less land, less water, and more energy. It’s also preferable compared to almond milk—it uses about six times less water than almond milk.
Kira Bindrim:If any type of milk is more harmful than none, than water, or other beverages that can be used as beverages, then why milk? Why do we need milk at all? What if we just didn’t have milk?
Sarah Todd: Yeah, great question, Kira. So I mean, when we’re babies, we drink milk.
Kira Bindrim: Right, right, I’ll allow that part.
Sarah Todd:It has a certain legacy. It was milk that became the basis of human and animal babies. It is a well-respected, nurturing, wholesome, and trusted source of nutrition. It is proud of that heritage. But milk has a fascinating past. So for most of human history, people weren’t really drinking milk. And one of the big issues with dairy milk, in particular, was refrigeration—for most of human history, we didn’t have it so it would spoil, you didn’t want to be drinking milk. There were also many technological limitations. But, during the Industrial Revolution we got refrigeration, pasteurization and agricultural technology that allowed us produce milk on a larger scale. There are historical reasons for this shift. It is also not an accident. The US government has been working with the dairy industry for many years to help them sell milk to American consumers.
Kira Bindrim: So it’s my fault for interning at the Got Milk place.
Sarah Todd:Yes, Kira. You did it.
Kira Bindrim:It was obvious to me.
Sarah Todd: You know, and I think it’s understandable. Again, dairy has been very successful in integrating itself into people’s diets for a long time. A fun fact that I learned while doing research for this very podcast episode, is that part of the reason big dairy became so ingrained in everybody’s diets was during World Wars I and II, the government was shipping canned milk and powdered milk abroad to soldiers, they wound up with a milk surplus, and then they were like, what do we do with all this milk? So then they wound up being like, I know, we’ll give it to kids. It became part and parcel of the school lunch programIt still exists today. And in that sense, it’s become very intertwined with our ideas of you need to drink milk to be healthy, to be strong. And it turns out that that’s really not necessarily true, apart from when you’re a baby. I, again, I don’t think that it’s that milk is bad, but I don’t think it’s good either. I think it’s just an option.
Kira Bindrim:After the break, oatmilk is global.
Kira Bindrim: So we talked a little bit or I talked a little bit at the beginning about how Öste invented or developed oat milk in 1994. And then we’ve talked about how it’s super popular and in Starbucks today. What was the initial reaction to oatmilk? How was it in the early years of being out in the world?
Sarah Todd:Yes, it was quiet at first. It was developed to cater to lactose-intolerant people. They liked it, I think. It was appreciated by them. But it wasn’t really a big thing until Toni Petersson, who’s the current CEO, took over in 2012. That’s when it really took off.
Kira Bindrim:What was he able to do to turn the tide?
Sarah Todd:He has a great vision for marketing. Oatly’s marketing vision is actually two-pronged. One part is the sustainability aspect. That’s a big deal. Oatly displays their carbon emissions information on milk cartons. They’re very forthright about their commitment. So when you’re buying Oatly, you can feel good about your environmental impact. That’s something that, his coming to be CEO in 2012 I think coincided with a lot of people just thinking more about the environmental impact of what they were eating and drinking. Oatly uses quirky, snarky marketing techniques that helped Oatly take off. They’re very funny, very dry. There are many catchphrases and slogans on their cartons. Or, for example, after the Super Bowl commercial that we mentioned earlier, in which Toni Petersson was standing in the middle of a field singing, a lot of people didn’t like that commercial people. People thought it was weird, they didn’t appreciate his singing voice. Oatly began selling. T-shirts that say “I totally hated that Super Bowl commercial”You could also buy from their website. They’re willing to poke fun at themselves. I think this has helped them stand out in the alt-milk world, which tends towards being more virtuous than a market.
Kira Bindrim:I’d love to see a picture of today’s oat milk popularity. We’ve been talking a lot about how it’s big in the US. It’s available in American Starbucks, is it also popular around the world?
Sarah Todd:It is. Oatly is one of the most successful strategies to promote oatmilk. It has also partnered with Starbucks in China. KFC in China recently s.Tarted selling oats ice creamYou can also use it. Oatly’s initial rollout in the US was in coffee shops. This is where Oatly is most concentrated. It’s taken off, especially in Western Europe, it’s very popular. Oatly once again dominates the Western European oat milk market. It holds 53% of the total alt milk market share in Sweden, according to me. Sweden is where it’s from originally. So it’s popular in Europe and then Oatly also has a presence in Asia, including in Hong Kong and in mainland China. They recently opened a manufacturing plant in Singapore that’s going to help them further distribute in Asia. So those are the main markets where it’s taken off right now, but I think that it could be even more of a global phenomenon.
Kira Bindrim:It is also used for its lactose tolerance, taste, and sustainability.
Sarah Todd:It’s very similar. It is easier to achieve in Asia because people there eat less dairy. So it’s more of something that people are acclimated to.
Kira Bindrim:Oatly is the only one in this game. Like it’s a big market, as we’ve been talking about. Is It? “big milk”Are you in the oatmilk space? What is the competitive landscape?
Sarah Todd:Yes, there are so many big brands getting in on the game, just to name a few: Danone, Chobani and HP Hood, which is a major American dairy brand. Because they see the market opportunity, there are a lot of people getting involved in the game. That’s something that Oatly is aware of, and a little worried about, they confess in their IPO filing, because these bigger brands have far more resources. But at the same time, what Toni Petersson has said is that he’s confident that they have the sustainability and just the authenticity that we know really appeals to a lot of Gen Z / Millennial types. They can make a claim potentially, to caring about the environment that other bigger brands can’t.
Kira Bindrim:I would love to discuss what I consider the milk wars. This is the opposition from. “big dairy,”As it were. Tell me a little bit about the kind of opposition, or how it’s shown up, mostly against Oatly but in general against the industry?
Sarah Todd: Yeah, great question. So the milk wars are on and they’re big. The dairy industry has a major concern about the adoption of milk as a name. Oatly in Sweden isn’t allowed to refer to itself legally as milk. Another problem in Europe was the use of words that are often associated with dairy, such rich and creamy. So that’s something where recently the EU made a legal decision on a petition from big dairy Europe version. Big dairy argued that Oat milk should not be allowed the use of adjectives like richer and creamy. Oat milk won. Although they can still call themselves milk they can also use the words richer or creamy. It was indicative of the real threat to the dairy industry from plant-based milks, as well as oat milk.
Kira Bindrim: Do you feel like there’s any legitimacy to this argument? Like, imagine there’s a spectrum of arguments. On one end of the spectrum is the argument that anyone can call themselves sandwich cookies, except Oreo. That’s their gambit. And then the other end of that spectrum is that no one other than a pharmaceutical company can describe what they’re producing as a drug that can help you? This is where the big dairy argument fits in. Is it bigger pharma or Oreo?
Sarah Todd: I would say, from my perspective, I think it’s more Oreo. I think that mostly big dairy is worried about losing the stronghold that they’ve had on the public for a long time. And as more and more alternatives pop up, they’re just doing what they can to try to capture their business or make sure that they don’t lose business. And that’s understandable from an economic perspective. But it doesn’t mean that as consumers, I think that we should have any reason to be like “I side with big dairy, don’t say milk.” I think it’s fine.
Kira Bindrim: If the last few years are any indication, plant based alternatives, not just of dairy, but of meat, and all kinds of foods that are not necessarily great for the environment and how they’re produced, are kind of here to stay. Do you think there are lessons to be learned from oat milk?
Sarah Todd: Yeah, I think one lesson that we’ve learned from oat milk, as well as brands, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, is that people are willing to try plant based alternatives to meat and dairy, but it has to taste good, which shouldn’t be revelatory, but I think is. I was a vegetarian for a long time. For 20 years. Many veggie burgers were nothing more than oats and beans mixed with some wilted lettuce. My lesson is to ensure that your product tastes great. Another lesson I believe is about how marketable sustainability is. There are some issues with this. For example, I mentioned earlier Oatly labels its cartons with its carbon footprint, which is generally a good idea, but there’s no standardized way to measure what your carbon footprint is. Also consumers don’t necessarily know how to interpret it. We could create a system similar to movie ratings but for carbon emissions. All this is to say that I believe these are the main takeaways: taste great, be sustainable. And if you can be a little, what’s the right word, not non-virtuous, but not superior, in the way that you market it, I think that that’s big too. I think that what we’re seeing right now is that a lot of people aren’t in a place where they’re ready to give up meat or dairy completely, but they are willing to reduce their consumption. So the more that brands learn how to market themselves as appealing to that much bigger audience of people who are looking to cut back a little versus people who are looking up to give it up entirely, I think that’s a winning strategy.
Kira Bindrim: It’s interesting that you say that, because it reminds me a little bit of the conversation about cash that I’ve been having with our colleague, finance reporter John Detrixhe, and one of the big takeaways of that conversation is the thing that will ultimately change people from cash to digital payments is merchants. It’s that you go to a store and that you will be buying something with a card or ultimately your phone, because that’s more convenient, versus what probably wouldn’t be effective is if someone just stood up and said, “let’s all switch off of cash now.” And I feel like there’s kind of parity here. What will win this fight between alternative milks or regular milk is Starbucks, is your local coffee shop, because you’ll start to see alternatives there, you’ll start to see more alternatives, and at some point, people are just going to be like,”let me try one. I’m interested in what it’s like.” That ubiquity is going to kind of win, not the fight like I don’t the regular milk is going anywhere, but we’ll make this landscape less fraught as time goes on, and people just get used to these things.
One more question for you. What is the next hot, new milk after oatmilk? What is the next hot, new milk that we’re gonna need to know about?
Sarah Todd:So I have two possible candidates that I want you to consider. One is hemp milk, which I mention, because it is similarly rich and nutty, and has a lot of natural fats in it, all of which tends to mean it’ll taste good. And two, it’s similarly a very sustainable crop. So if you’re coming from the environmental perspective, that’s a winning one.
Another possibility is milk. This is the next milk. Because there was. A very entertaining article in New York MagazineSeveral weeks ago. The headline was something like “hot girls are drinking whole milk now.” And the gist of it was that we’ve circled all the way back around, and that choosing milk at your coffee shop or using whole milk in your cereal is sort of an act of quiet rebellion, I believe in the words of the article, that people can do in a similar way to maybe like having the occasional cigarette but not as dangerous, not comparing milk to cigarettes.
Kira Bindrim: So by having half and half in my coffee, I’ve really come like, on a rollercoaster ride of this opinion. I’m actually cool. I’m trendy.
Sarah Todd:You might be cool. Yes. My friend Deena Shanker, who’s a food reporter at Bloomberg, had a masterful tweet a while back that was about how Oatly has sort of completed the circuit from being trendy to being normal and boring. What was once fashionable is now commonplace, and milk is trendy again.
Kira Bindrim:Milk is the new milk. Sarah, thank you for being here. It was an interesting conversation.
Sarah Todd:Thank you, Kira.
Kira Bindrim: That’s our obsession for the week. Katie Jane Fernelius produced this episode. George Drake is our sound engineer. Taka Yazawa & Alex Sukira are the theme songs. Special thanks to Sarah Todd and Alex Ossola from New York. If you liked what you heard, please leave a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Tell your friends about us! Keep your contacts updated so that you can be contacted by potential listeners. Then head to www.qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s weekly obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.