Nothing screams nostalgia like a gigantic glass of wholesome milk. Growing up in the 1970s, there was one mom in the neighborhood, a former flower child who’d allegedly lived on a commune, who drank alternative milk made from brown rice and blackstrap molasses. She was an outlier. The wisdom of the ages had ordained dairy milk a pure food and a nutritive absolute for strong bones and healthy teeth.
Clean Is The New Pure
Today plant-based milk consumers are perceived as more mainstream than kooky, and their numbers are multiplying as more and more people consciously incorporate clean, unprocessed whole foods and healthy fats into their daily diet. Plant milks are essentially suspensions of ground nuts, legumes, seeds, roots, tubers, or grains steeped in liquid to extract both flavor and nutrients. Sometimes these concoctions, which are more similar to a tea than a milk, are emulsified with extra fat, and many are sweetened like horchatas and pimped out with a seemingly infinite variety of flavor combinations, botanicals and superfood ingredients, like turmeric, cardamom and chicory root, for added boosts of nutrition.
Is A Plant Milk Mustache A Cow-nterfeit Mustache?
The dairy industry is up in arms, and the recent originalism kerfluffle, in which they are challenging milk’s legal definition, as well as the labeling and regulatory enforcement of alternative milks, really boils down to profits and market share. If plant-milk producers are eventually forced to rebrand themselves as something other than a ‘milk,’ it’s conceivable that other ambiguously labeled products are next, including coconut meat, plant-based butters like peanut butter, even lab-grown and plant-based meats.
Much is at stake these days for the dairy industry, which has experienced a steady decline of per capita milk consumption since its peak in the mid 1940s. Consumers still enjoy dairy in other forms, like yogurt and cheese, but plant-based milks are gaining traction, specifically as millennials respond to environmental uncertainty, industry-wide food adulteration, abuse and safety concerns. Nondairy milk sales have grown over 60% in the last five years.
But not all plant milks stack up the same. Soy has enough estrogens, allergens and deforestation issues to dissuade some folks. And nuts are water guzzlers that demand year-round watering. Over 80% of all almond production occurs in California’s extreme and exceptional drought-stricken areas that rely heavily on pipelines to deliver developed groundwater from other areas.
Bad To The Bone!
Oat milk hits on all cylinders. Oats, which are the hulled seeds of cereal grain, require only a fraction of the water in farming. They are water soluble, which allows nutrients to leach into the soaking liquid. They are also naturally gluten-free.* Oats are not a complete protein, but they are low in fat, a good source of vitamins B, fatty acids, and minerals, and easier to digest than other grains. Like other grains, nuts, legumes, and rice, oats contain various antioxidant compounds, including phytates, that have anti-inflammatory benefits.** And although oat milk, or any plant milk, including the fortified brands, isn’t the nutritional equivalent of dairy, oat milk is a great addition to any diet already rich in leafy greens, omega-rich fish, lean proteins, legumes, berries, and sweet potatoes. The Mayo Clinic recommends that adults consume 3 daily servings of fat-free or low-fat dairy, or fortified substitutes.
The best part is that oat milk, unlike many plant milks, doesn‘t make my coffee look like dirty dishwashing liquid. Thanks to its soluble fiber, oat milk has a thicker viscosity and a creamier mouth feel that I prefer in a coffee creamer, and it also whips up a reasonable latte foam. Its mild cereal milk flavor, which provides a nostalgic warmth of milk, is very much on-trend, and nuanced enough to complement most foods without interfering with their flavor profiles. It’s also budget friendly and can be whipped up in minutes. If you want to reduce food waste, you can even refrigerate the oat pulp, or dehydrate it first for longer storage, and use it to augment other recipes, like granola, overnight grain bowls and baked goods.
*Although oats are naturally gluten free, they are often exposed to gluten during processing, so if gluten is an issue look for products with a gluten-free label.
**Phytic acid can impact the body‘s absorption of minerals and iron, which is not typically a concern if following a well-balanced diet. Vegetarians might nevertheless want to pair oat milk with foods rich in vitamins A and C to promote mineral and iron absorption.
Tracy Turi, is a trained chef, recipe developer and culinary trend watcher. She has a Masters in Education and has taught nutrition and culinary skills to area children since the 1990s. She is also an avid home cook and a mother to four children. She lives in Monmouth County, NJ.