If you eschew cow milk because it’s too thick, too “creamy,” or simply does not agree with your delicate tummy, there are many an alternative on the market. Almonds, pistachios, cashews, rice, and macadamia nuts have all been ground and pulverized and milked to produce liquids that those who do not care for dairy consume. Oat milk, the runaway hit of the alternative milks, is having a moment—yet that moment, as of this beautiful Tuesday in April, is not good. There’s sugar in oat milk, you see. And for some reason, everyone is mad.
On Tuesday, Medium published a blog about Oatly’s rise to the top, detailing the ways we got to this point, where the Swedish oat milk brand is poised to possibly IPO for $10 billion. This caused people online to start talking about oat milk, which led to the following tweet, which references a blog post about oat milk written in August.
The blog in question focuses on Oatly’s branding, which purportedly obfuscates its nefarious unhealthiness. Their tagline is that the milk itself is “made for humans,” which I suppose is a riff on the fact that cow’s milk is not made for humans, but for baby cows. Because we humans are not baby cows, we should not drink cow milk, and should instead seek other alternatives that are good for our bodies and also, our spirits, which would be otherwise weighed down with the moral implications of supporting the dairy industry by drinking moo milk. The issue for this writer, and for the hundreds of people who engaged with the above tweet, devastated that their beloved alternative milk product is sugary and therefore “bad,” is the branding. Oatly’s branding is misleading, but only if you were looking just to the advertising to validate your choice in alternative milk.
If you watched the Super Bowl this year, you might recall a bizarre ad for Oatly that featured the CEO, Toni Petersson, singing a song in the middle of an empty field about how Oatly is made for humans. If you live in a place where the coffee shops offer long spaghetti noodles as stirrers and only have paper straws, you are perhaps already familiar with Oatly and have made the choice to drink it because of its purported “goodness.” We all know that almond milk is horrible for the environment, and that cow milk has its own issues, but the alternative milks that proliferate are “good.” They are naturally vegan, which is another signifier for “healthy,” and they are also branded in a way that suggests health without actually saying it.
Arguably, it is one of the better “milk” substitutes, because of its texture and its creaminess; an oat milk latte is a decent approximation of a regular milk latte, and honestly, whenever I order one, I do not know or feel the difference. My preference for oat milk is not due to health, but because too much regular milk makes me irrevocably gassy. I do not feel shock at the fact that Oatly is crammed with sugar; so is my preferred creamer of choice, International Delight Hazelnut, which is both “non-dairy” and disgusting. Sometimes I go for the oat milk at home, when I want to gesture towards feeling virtuous, but usually, the slop in my cold brew is chemical nastiness. I love every sip.
Oatly’s big, blocky letters and cheeky, self-deprecating ads are winking and nodding at its intended audience, saying that yes, of course, it’s weird to drink milk made of oatmeal, but it’s good for you because its made of oatmeal. It came from the earth, which the marketing copy often emphasizes, suggesting without saying out loud that because it comes from the earth, it is good. Nowhere on the label does it say that Oatly is better for you than other alternative milks, but it doesn’t disavow the consumer of that notion, either. That is good advertising, if I am being callous, and it is also leaning on the consumer’s inherent laziness in, say, looking at the label to see if the carpet matches the drapes. If a carton of oat milk looks friendly and inviting, and is also sold in a health food store as well as your local Stop and Shop, there’s a moral superiority inherent in selecting that brand over another. Oatly goes well with decent replicas of mid-century modern furniture, squiggly mirrors, and one very healthy monstera plant stretching its leaves towards the sun. It projects health through its branding by not suggesting otherwise, and so to be upset about the fact that it is sugary is misdirecting that anger. Be mad at yourself for being duped by advertising, but don’t be mad at Oatly.