The "wow no cow!" company
Credit: Photo by @oatlyus via Twitter

About a month ago, I strolled into my favorite neighborhood cafe and saw a sign which read “Due to popular demand at the company, we’re out of Oatly oat milk :(.” A couple years ago, I may not have even known what oat milk was, let alone Oatly. But it is 2018, and not only am I familiar with Oatly, I was honestly intending to get myself an oat milk latte that very afternoon. I realized that it wasn’t just oat milk that was fueling this new non-dairy craze, it was desire for Oatly specifically. I needed to learn more about the brand, so I went right to the source.

“Oatly’s popularity came from kind of a perfect storm,” Sara Fletcher, Communications and Public Affairs Lead for Oatly US told me over the phone. “One, I think it has to do with taste and quality. Oatly works so well in coffee.” Fletcher told me that most people try oat milk for the first time in a barista-made drink, and they’re shocked to find that it doesn’t taste like a compromise, but simply a unique beverage experience. “Oatly ends up not even feeling like a substitute,” says Fletcher. She also told me that as many people begin to look into plant-based options for environmental or dietary concerns, they find that oat milk also checks a lot of boxes when it comes to a milk alternative. Not only is Oatly lactose-free and vegan, it’s also soy-, nut-, and seed-free.

Though it may fit in seamlessly with the current wellness craze, Oatly’s story actually goes back much further. It was founded by Rickard Öste in the 1990s, based on his research on lactose intolerance at Lund University in Sweden. Essentially trying to rethink the concept of milk by starting from scratch, Öste found that oats could be formulated in a liquid food that nutritionally benefited the largest sample of people.

“After doing a lot of work to figure out the best way to work with oats, they landed on a patented enzymatic process,” says Fletcher. “It’s a great way to break down the oats in their entirety.” After oats are milled and mixed with water, the enzyming breaks the oat starch down into smaller components, among them malt sugar (which acts as a natural sweetener), fibers, carbs, fats and protein. This process also removes the oat’s insoluble fibers, which humans can’t digest, and leaves dietary fibers to create what Fletcher calls a “balanced macronutrient profile.”

Oatly may have been one of the first non-dairy milks to be commercially produced, but it really didn’t grab the attention of the larger European and American markets until the past few years. For most of its early life, Fletcher says Oatly was primarily found in health food stores or promoted by doctors in Sweden for those with allergies to dairy, soy, and nuts. Then, in 2012, Oatly reimagined how to make the product more accessible to everyone, and made a huge push in Europe by partnering with coffee shops and sponsoring public events like music festivals. In the past year, Oatly has made its way into many American cafes and groceries stores, where it has been warmly received by dairy and non-dairy drinkers alike.

Like many other commercially made non-dairy milks, Oatly incorporates external fat from canola and rapeseed oil into their milks to create the right texture. While some consumers have expressed worry about canola oil, Fletcher explained that fear around canola oil is rooted in a naming convention issue. Canola oil, which is also made from the rapeseed plant, was first invented in the 1970s to create a rapeseed oil with lower erucic acid levels as a health and safety precaution. Now, however, canola oil is now often highly made from herbicide-resistant GMOs and processed with solvents, which can be dangerous if consumed in excess. Oatly, however, only uses a non-GMO, low-erucic acid rapeseed-canola oil blend that is expeller-pressed (which means no solvent is used in processing) to create the safest possible product.

“This very particular canola oil is harder to find, but it has a lighter taste to really let the flavor of the oat shine,” says Fletcher. “We also like it because it’s low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat, which is a better profile nutritionally.”

There’s really no need for most people to fear fat; as Fletcher explained, if you consider it from a dairy milk aspect, skim milk and whole milk taste and act very differently because of their respective fat content. However, for those who are still resistant to oil in their oat milk, Oatly does make a low-fat version, which has no added oil. Their original and chocolate flavors have about a 2 percent fat content, and their barista blend has a fat content of about 3.5 percent, which allows the milk to foam really well.

That barista blend is the very same one that I treat myself to in a latte on Saturday mornings at my local cafe. Though the shop has been able to restock Oatly since that fateful day, I asked Fletcher about what happened there.

“Our friends in the coffee world are a big reason for why we’re so popular. [The shortage] was nothing more than demand, and of the problems to have it’s a good one,” says Fletcher. “You can only make so much at a certain time given what you’re planning capacity-wise.” Further, Fletcher explained that Oatly is committed to never compromise on quality: “We can’t just sign on another factory really fast because we never want to lose the quality that made us so popular in the first place.”