Oat Milk: An Unsuspecting Answer to Climate Change

I can recall with embarrassing clarity the precise moment oat milk became my default preference.

It was the first time I had it. Curious enough, my first encounter was not based off of the recommendation of some hipster barista at a coffee roaster, but by the insistence of a coworker who met me at a local bubble tea café. I had no real intention of requesting a substitute for whole milk in my order, mostly because at the time I considered myself a milk purist and still subscribed to the adolescent notion that cow’s milk would make me grow taller. Nonetheless, the coworker offered to pay for my drink, and it was that additional $1 fee which time and time again deterred me from experimenting. It struck me as thoughtless to not indulge, and so I did. I was not disappointed with the results. 

Despite placing dairy high on my gastronomic hierarchy of foods, milk doesn’t exactly agree with me. I am of Chinese descent, which is to say I am genetically predisposed to lactose intolerance. There is no greater pleasure than pampering myself to a charcuterie board, but in that same instant, it remains ingrained in my mind that upon leaving the dinner party there will be disastrous complications. Oat milk, for me, has come to take the form of a liquid liaison. I think it accomplishes what all dairy alternatives should aim to do, which is imitate the taste of cow’s milk. Unfortunately, in addition to my personal intolerance, whole milk also happens to be the least environmentally friendly. Yet, no longer do I have to sacrifice taste for dietary restrictions; a drink has been invented to emancipate me from almond milk and the unnerving flavor of every drink it corrupts. Needless to say, this introduction was crucial to discovering that I could still enjoy my daily cup of coffee without always having it black. In the time since I have first tried oat milk, it has grown similarly popular with everyone I know. 

The answer to its success is, on the surface, simple. “It steams better than other non dairy alternatives because there’s more fat. It’s a similar experience to steaming whole milk which has a lot of fat as well, so you get a more authentic tasting latte,” explains Griffin Moskowitz, assistant manager at Boba Guys on Stockton St., one of the first shops in San Francisco to stock oat milk directly from Sweden. 

 Moskowitz has used oat milk every day for over two years as a barista, and appears unphased by the techy, touristy clientele that form a single file line out of his shop down to Union Square. Apparently, it is not uncommon for customers to come in deliberately for oat milk as a substitute to the conventional cow’s milk used in bubble teas. One persistent customer came in demanding her drink be made with no tapioca pearls, no sugar, and only oat milk because she was in the midst of serious dieting. “I didn’t have the heart to tell her that oat milk actually has a lot of fat and calories,” said Moskowitz. 

 Beyond occasional misconceptions about oat milk’s nutritional value, there is something curious about its recent increase in demand worth unpacking. Oatly, the oat milk producer favored by coffee houses and frequenters of Whole Foods alike, has created marketing campaigns that capture both a tone of self-deprecation and environmental sensibility. Not long ago did I walk past a MUNI bus stop plastered with an advertisement for Oatly that read, “They will stick an ad for oat milk anywhere these days.” The marketing is shamelessly simple, and who can blame them? As is mentioned on their website, “it’s what [they] do with those oats and that water that makes Oatly so special.” The company has patented a formula which involves adding enzymes to the solution so that starch breaks down into smaller components. It is for this reason that people who attempt to make their own oat milk at home end up with something that scarcely resembles the taste of Oatly. What’s more? One of Oatly’s primary goals is to “deliver products that have maximum nutritional value and minimal environmental impact.” Thirst for a worthy dairy alternative is ubiquitous, and such desire is only exacerbated by the idea that consuming oat milk is perhaps the most ecologically friendly option. (Note: one almond requires 1.1 gallons of water to grow, and there tends to be 4-5 almonds in a single glass of almond milk.)

Photography by Anthony RogersPhotography by Anthony Rogers

Photography by Anthony Rogers

However, oat milk is only a slight, savory manifestation of larger efforts. American consumers, with or without an agenda in mind, are making the choice to purchase products that lessen the agriculture industry’s harrowing environmental impact. In a 2019 climate opinion survey conducted by Yale University, 67% of adults in the United States stated they fear global warming will harm future generations. An intuitive 64% agreed that citizens should do more to address global warming. These sentiments, although frequently obscured by congressional turmoil, are expressed most obviously by how the American public spends their dollars. No longer do we live in a post-war society where milk men deliver door to door every other day, nor do we find adequate incentive in the phrase “Got Milk?”

The sustainable food movement has taken the United States by storm and caught the eye of self-promoting health guru celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Oprah, whose magazine endorsed the movement as “a delicious revolution.” Celia Barbour of O writes, “there’s a full-fledged revolution going on, and all you have to do to join is pass up the chips and nuggets and eat a locally grown, organic carrot instead.” The trade-off from chips to carrots, from cow to oat, is no negligible development in the American industrial food system. Similar to its organically akin counterparts, the popularization of oat milk is emblematic of a larger cultural fixation on sustainability. Consumers are altering their behavior in anticipation for the worst scenario, are operating on the possibility that it might not be a coincidence last summer was even hotter than the last.

This shift scarcely comes as a surprise. In the phantasmagoric projection of modern media, videos circulate on Instagram of a teary-eyed Greta Thunberg pleading before the United Nations at just sixteen years old. The president of the United States of America takes to Twitter to allege that, “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” The military-style counterterrorism measures used to suppress protestors along the 1,172 mile long Dakota Access Pipeline go viral, sparking troll wars between alt-right activists and teenage tree huggers online. These developments pile on top of the uncomfortable truth held in the back of our minds; knowledge that the Amazon rainforest remains burning with as much as 7,000 square miles of forest in flames at any given moment. Upon sitting down at a coffee shop and opening my laptop, the natural reaction is to check my email. It is now impossible to do so without first confronting a headline either detailing a traumatic event, or detailing the public’s reaction to a traumatic event. 

The same children who look to Thunberg for guidance find themselves marching in the streets of Washington D.C. with the Peoples Climate Movement, holding signs that scream “PLEASE DON’T BURN MY FUTURE!” The same talk show conservatives who look to Donald Trump for guidance find themselves calling Thunberg, a self-identifying advocate of Asperger’s, “mentally ill” on Fox News. In brief, America is more thirsty for the idea of oat milk than ever, is more considerate of changes that could make even a marginal difference. 

Although not immediately evident in the abstract, ordering oat milk at the counter acts as a mechanism of subconscious defense. It appears as a minor decision, but in reality, the choice alleviates stress arising from discourse surrounding climate change. We mentally register small changes in diet as a sort of compensation for not adequately contributing towards environmental activism. Of course this assessment is applicable to more than just oat milk— the same thought process can be applied to products like compostable utensils, metal straws, even reusable grocery bags. 

These seemingly insignificant changes to the way we eat or drink allow us to feel slightly better about the prospect of coastlines flooding, or say, garbage piles twice the size of Texas popping up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Without dedicating one’s entire life to the cause, there lies an urge not necessarily to find a solution, but to exclude oneself from the problem. As a response to propaganda flashing photos of sea turtles with their necks stuck in the plastic lining of a six-pack of beer, we find a middle ground we’re comfortable with. Oat milk — expensive, satisfying, environmentally viable — exists in that middle ground, shining as a paragon of privilege. Indeed, the entire enterprise of veganism is built on an assumption that one can afford the luxury of going vegan. If Oatly is so concerned with sustainability, why produce a beverage that excludes those without the financial means to add an additional dollar to their order? In truth, oat milk is popular because the concentration of fat makes it tasty; its environmental integrity is just a performative add-on. 

Oat milk — expensive, satisfying, environmentally viable — exists in that middle ground, shining as a paragon of privilege.

This is not an unfamiliar narrative. Participating through a means that is convenient and of service to one’s own interests is symptomatic of Generation Z. Modern activism often looks like updating a profile picture to communicate solidarity, or reposting a grotesque video to outrage your closest friends and family. We engage in the altruistic gratification of doing the least to signal that we mean for the best. Oat milk is an option that optimizes personal satisfaction while remaining the least consequential towards the environment. This is not to claim I am exempt from the way digital natives conduct themselves, nor is it to say that I am not susceptible to the latest food fad. I believe that people, regardless of their motivations, are doing their best to waste the least because of the options made available. These systemic changes, which may best be understood through the ongoing example of milk, already have measurable results. Between 2009 and 2015, worldwide sales of non-dairy milk alternatives have doubled, amounting to more than 21 billion dollars in revenue. During the same period of time, consumption of dairy milk has decreased by 13%, cutting both methane emissions and industrialized land use. Consumers’ efforts to curb their waste and carbon footprint are having a quantifiable impact – these minor changes are adding up. 

Oat milk is proof that commercial incentives are an avenue of sustainable progress, at least for now. Rarely is food apolitical, nor culturally insignificant. I do not doubt that in the future there will be newer, possibly more promising versions of oat milk on the market. They may take the form of innovative energy sources or renewable technology or lab-grown meat, but in my mind they will always be another version of oat milk. 

Only now, as I sit here finishing up my thoughts on the commercial phenomenon of oatmilk, do I realize that it did not once cross my mind to mention that I was previously a barista. In fact, I worked at two different coffee shops, and neither served oat milk. There is a distinct possibility that this information contributed to my preoccupation with the subject. My lack of experience serving oat milk intrigued me for some time, and its increasing presence on grocery market shelves made me question why everyone was equally fascinated. 

Here is what it is: perhaps there is nothing more inconsequential than the answer to the question, “What type of milk do you want in your coffee?” and yet, each possible response spurs in me a line of intrusive speculation. I can make the assumption that someone who orders whole milk does not share my intolerance of lactose, or is at least willing to flirt with the odds of disaster. A person who prefers soy may either be unaware of the plant’s estrogen mimicking properties, the consequences of which are cancerous in the most severe circumstances, or is utterly indifferent. People who choose almond milk, well, I am afraid to say I do not quite understand people who choose almond milk.

But ask me, how do I really feel about oat milk?

I could argue that someone who orders oat milk is instrumental in the grander scheme of global sustainability, an unlikely activist with an aversion to dairy. I could argue that oat milk is not actually so surface level, but is symbolic of a much larger movement taking over the United States. I could argue that I believe the type of milk anyone chooses to put in their coffee is trivial and that I don’t have an opinion. However, I would be lying. So as I sit here drinking an iced oat milk latte through a metal straw, contemplating the merits of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal, finding a way to finalize my thoughts, I can’t help but wonder: when is the appropriate time to cry over spilled milk?

// Photography by Anthony Rogers.

Oat Milk: An Unsuspecting Answer to Climate Change
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