Oat milk has easily become one of the most popular dairy milk alternatives and it’s made from one of the cheapest and most common pantry staples in existence: rolled oats.
If you’re scratching your head wondering how in the world people make something resembling milk from oats, we get it. But the process isn’t actually that mysterious. You just mix oats and water, puree in a blender, and strain. Now you’ve got a creamy liquid to use as a substitute for cow’s milk in many recipes (or, just as a cold glass at breakfast).
But that still doesn’t answer the more important question of why you might go through all the trouble to make oat milk (or search for it at your local health food store). Is it actually better for you than plain ol’ cow’s milk?
What are the health benefits of drinking oat milk?
Nicole Magryta, RDN, author of Nourish Your Tribe, says most oat milks contain one to three grams of fiber per serving (which is a little more than an alternative milk like almond), but also contain more calories and carbohydrates. In other words, you’re kind of coming out even unless you’re buying fortified oat milk from a supermarket.
“The health benefits of the milk itself are not necessarily from the oats and water, which offer marginal benefits, but from the fortified nutrients added during processing,” says Magryta. “[Micronutrients like] vitamins A, D, B12, B2 and calcium are added so the product can be a close nutritional substitute for dairy milk.”
What about homemade, unfortified oat milk… is there any point to drinking it? Yes, but mostly only if you need to avoid cow’s milk because of an allergy or want to support a more sustainable alternative, says Magryta. Because sensitivities or allergies to oats are uncommon, oat milk gives people with dietary restrictions on soy, dairy, or nuts another beverage alternative.
How to choose the best oat milk
If you fit the bill for someone looking to consume a plant-based alternative to dairy milk, it’s important to know what else you might be getting when you grab a container off the supermarket shelf. Registered dietitian Sarah Rueven, MS, RDN, CDN, founder of Rooted Wellness, says the best oat milks are made with just oats and water, without the added ingredients companies claim improve the taste and texture.
Here’s what to check for on oat milk labels before you buy:
- Choose milk made from organic oats. “Conventional oats are commonly sprayed with glyphosate as a drying agent before harvest,” says Magryta, “which is a heavily-used chemical weed killer now labeled by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen.” She adds that some recent tests of oat-based products have shown high levels of glyphosate residue and that organic products are less likely to be contaminated (and therefore safer for consumption).
- Avoid added sugar and phosphates. Magryta says you definitely want to steer clear of sweetened varieties, but that you may also want to avoid brands with added phosphates. Although the Food and Drug Administration includes phosphates on its Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list, it’s a question of quantity. “Natural organic phosphate esters do occur naturally in foods like dairy, but in much lower concentrations,” explains Magryta. “We, as a population, are consuming much higher quantities of phosphate from industrially-processed foods which [causes] safety concerns.”
- Skip “barista” varieties. Marketed as an option designed to be blended into popular coffeehouse-style beverages like lattes, barista oat milks are specially formulated to foam and steam—but that means the ingredient list is not as simple as oats and water. Most of these versions contain a seed oil, like sunflower or safflower, which Rueven recommends avoiding: “These oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids, and overconsumption can disrupt our omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, causing inflammation.”
- Look for calcium and vitamin D fortification. “It’s important to check for these as most organic products do not add these key nutrients of concern in the American diet, especially if oat milk is being consumed in place of dairy milk products,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of topdeblogs.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
The 7 healthiest oat milk brands you can buy
Ready to shop? This list of healthy oat milk options will take all the guesswork out of buying alternative, plant-based milks at the supermarket.
Even grocery retailers are coming up with their own plant-based milk products, and e-commerce grocery Thrive Market has one of the most nutritious oat milks out there.
“One of the best oat milk brands is Thrive Market’s Organic Oat Milk,” said Trista Best, registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements. “The ingredients panel is one of the shortest among other oat milk brands with no preservatives, added sugar, or oils.”
There are only two ingredients: water and organic oats. While there aren’t any added sugars, there are 13 grams of sugar in this oat milk.
Magryta says Oatly! milk is made from gluten-free oats, certified Non-GMO, doesn’t contain gums or traditional thickeners, and also carries the Glyphosate Residue Free certification by The Detox Project.
“A problem with most versions of this product is that they contain grape seed oil, which is an inflammatory industrial seed oil,” she adds. “To avoid this, I recommend purchasing their low-fat option which leaves the oil out.”
Even though this brand is light on fiber and protein, Magryta says the nutrition profile makes up for that. It’s fortified with calcium, includes simple, organic ingredients, and is free of oil, phosphates, and natural flavors. It’s also one of the few organic offerings as well as one of the only zero-sugar oat milk options.
Why does Rueven recommend the Elmhurst brand?
“No oils, gums, or stabilizers! Just filtered water, whole grain oats, and salt,” she explains. It’s also non-GMO and contains only one gram of sugar, four grams of protein, and two grams of fiber.
Related: The #1 Best Protein Shake for Weight Loss
Although not organic, the original version of Planet Oat’s oatmilk is fortified with nutrients and low in fat. And with two grams of fiber and one teaspoon of sugar per serving, it’s a solid choice if buying organic isn’t in your budget.
This drinkable yogurt beverage from Halsa—a brand using sustainably-grown Scandinavian organic oats—has nearly two grams of fiber and five grams of protein per serving. It also meets the dietitian-preferred requirements of containing no GMO ingredients, phosphates, gums, or oils. The only caveat here is the sugar (18 grams for the blueberry variety). Luckily, it’s the naturally occurring kind from the real fruit added, not the added or artificial kind.
Yes, we did tell you to skip barista-formulated oat milk, but that was because most varieties include industrial seed oils. The Elmhurst brand doesn’t, though, which is why it’s Eat This-approved. Plus, it has two grams of fiber, three grams of protein, no carrageenan or gluten, and is non-GMO verified. If you’re going to go barista, Elmhurst is your best bet.
The worst oat milks you can buy
Sometimes products sold as “healthy” alternatives aren’t actually all that healthy for you, and oat milk is no exception. Added sugars and industrial seed oils are big red flags, and are common in milk alternatives. Avoid the following oat milk brands the next time you’re looking for a dairy milk substitute.
Oat milk is a pretty healthy drink that is naturally gluten-free, but when manufacturers add flavors like chocolate or vanilla, they also typically add sugar to make these flavors taste sweeter.
That’s why Jay Cowin, registered nutritionist and director of formulations for ASYSTEM, ranks Oatly brand chocolate oat milk as one of the worst oat milks. It has 16 grams of sugar, which is more than you’d find in a glazed donut.
Oat milks can often have great qualities to balance out the sugar content, but Cowin noted, “The fiber and protein content for this chocolate drink is about average for that of an oat milk.”
Related: This Popular Oat Milk Is Being Criticized For Its Ingredients
This brand offers traditional and barista varieties but many are low in fiber and protein, making them a pretty empty choice, nutritionally speaking. Plus, Magryta points out that the unsweetened variety contains seven grams of fat from inflammatory sunflower oil.
What’s the secret to deliciously extra-creamy oat milk? Oftentimes, it’s additives and more sugar and fat.
“There are some formulations made with added sugar and excess added fat to improve the taste and texture of the product,” explained Lisa Richards, nutritionist and creator of The Candida Diet.
Richards ranked Planet Oat’s Extra Creamy formulation as one of the worst oat milk products. It also contains additives like guar gum and gellan gum, which are often used to thicken and stabilize foods and beverages.
“This oat milk is a no-go with a long list of pro-inflammatory oil, additives, gums, and preservatives,” says Rueven. Magryta agrees, adding that it’s also not organic and made with sunflower oil. Basically, it checks all the wrong boxes.
Magryta only has one thing to say about this organic oat milk: “Put it back on the shelf.” Why? Because it contains a whopping four teaspoons of sugar per one-cup serving. There are plenty of other options with much less sugar than this one.
Health experts often recommend steering clear of barista-blend oat milks, which contain additives like oils to make them easier to steam for espresso drinks. These additives can have inflammatory properties.
In particular, Oatsome’s barista blend oat milk is quite high in sugars and fat, again with more sugar than a donut and the amount of fat you’d get from three slices of bacon. It also lacks dietary fiber.
Related: 30 Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Happy Planet’s chocolate oat milk is another high-sugar beverage best enjoyed in moderation. With 14 grams of sugar, it is similar to a serving of ice cream. The ingredients list also includes additives such as sunflower oil and gellan gum.
Related: One Secret Side Effect of Drinking Oat Milk, Says Dietitian
Chobani’s plain, unsweetened oat milk might have made our list of the best oat milks, but the vanilla variety is, unfortunately, one of the unhealthier oat milks on the market. Each serving contains 9 grams of sugar, and this product is formulated with more additives.
For more, be sure to check out Milk Alternatives 101: Your Guide To Every Dairy-Free Milk Substitute.