Is Oatly Bad For You?


Unlike most of the rest of the world, Oatly had a good 2020. The Swedish oat milk giant saw sales increase by 212% during the pandemic, and earlier this year, the company filed for a potentially massive IPO, with a likely valuation of more than $5 billion. Now Oatly is seeing shortages caused by surging orders from Starbucks, which added the brand to its coffeeshops in March, after previously just seeing shortages for being cool—a very good problem to have. It’s the rare milk alternative that seems to have crossed over from vegans and the lactose intolerant to the broader beverage-drinking public.

A big part of this success is that Oatly has somehow created a halo of virtue around drinking what’s essentially ground up oatmeal. One element of that halo is the fact that the carbon footprint of oat milk, like essentially all plant products, is quite a bit lower than cow’s milk. But the company goes further: Oatly’s tagline is “milk, but made for humans.” What does that really mean? Obviously the Swedes are manufacturing this stuff for people, but is it really better for you than milk, or other milk alternatives, as the company seems to imply?

The case against Oatly was made a little over a year ago by a writer named Jeff Nobbs, who went very granular on its unhealthiness (and, to his credit, shared shared a rebuttal from Oatly), and then advanced six months later by the writer Nate Eliason, who added a critique of the company’s advertising, which he considers to be as deceptive as ad campaigns for Coca-Cola and cigarettes. The argument that Oatly is, in fact, bad for you has two prongs: the first is that it contains canola oil, to give it a milk-like richness. The second is that the way Oatly is made turns the complex carbohydrates in oats into what’s essentially pure sugar. Both these things are true enough, but the health consequences are pretty heavily overstated by Nobbs.

The canola oil part is simple. There is canola (also known as rapeseed) oil in Oatly, but Nobbs takes the fact that canola oil can include trans fats to imply that the oil Oatly uses contains them, despite the fact that the carton says it has zero, which is a claim regulated by the FDA. Eliason adds some spooky-sounding language (“The evidence for the harms of canola oil is still in its early days, but continues to grow”). But the mainstream consensus is that, while processed oils are not ideal, canola oil is basically fine.

The sugar part is a bit more complicated. What’s clear is that the process that turns oats into oat milk transforms complex starches into maltose, a simple sugar. More refined carbohydrates, like maltose, are worse for you than complex carbs. They cause a bigger rise in blood glucose and insulin levels, which you don’t want. This can be quantified by a measure called the glycemic index—higher numbers are bad. (The glycemic index is a rough guide to why a 100-calorie portion of whole grains is better for you than 100 calories of refined sugar.)

Nobbs goes on to use the glycemic index of pure maltose, rather than Oatly itself, to imply that the alt milk is less healthy than a doughnut, but that’s not how glycemic index works—it’s impossible to assess individual ingredients in isolation. Glycemic index also doesn’t tell you everything about a food’s nutrition. Nobbs then switches measurements to use his estimate of the total glycemic load of Oatly—which accounts for serving size—to claim that a 12oz portion is essentially equivalent to a can of Coke. That’s true, but by this standard, two slices of whole-wheat bread is worse for you than either, because its glycemic load is even higher. The bigger problem with Coke is that it has no nutrients, whereas Oatly, while not so nutritious, has fiber, vitamins, and a little unsaturated fat.



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