No plant-based milk has been hotter than oat milk. Driven in large part by the success of Oatly, a Swedish company that invented oat milk in the early 1990s, the fervor for oat milk has been so intense that the brand has faced shortages throughout 2021, as more and more milk drinkers converted to the product. But now, following Oatly’s first major recall and a turning of the tide of popular opinion, the oat milk backlash has arrived.
Like most plant-based milks, including almond milk and rice milk, Oatly was initially touted as a more delicious way to consume milk that doesn’t come from a cow. It was creamier than almond- or coconut-based milks, which meant that it could be more easily frothed into a latte, and its higher fat content made it better at approximating cow’s milk in applications like baking. Oat milk was viewed by many as the obviously superior alternative milk option in terms of flavor and texture, and as it rose in popularity, it also effectively became a symbol for wholesome, earth-focused eating.
Oat milk’s rise in the late 2010s came at a truly perfect time. It was seemingly ideal for the ever-increasing number of people who eat vegan, people with lactose intolerance, and others who eschew dairy, and it came without the climate change concerns that followed other alternatives like almond milk. According to one analysis, demand for almond milk surged more than 250 percent between 2010 and 2015, but drought conditions in California in 2021 called attention to the fact that it takes somewhere around 15 gallons of water to grow just 16 almonds. That same year, Oatly and its acolytes capitalized on the notion that its product required less water to produce than almond milk. There are, of course, other oat milk brands, like Califia Farms and Pacific, but none managed to capture this moment quite like Oatly, which quickly became the alt milk ubiquitous in coffee shops and home kitchens. By the time Oatly launched in Starbucks locations across the country in 2021, the brand had officially gone mainstream.
Ethical concerns surrounding Oatly began popping up in 2020. First came a massive investment in the company from Blackstone, an investment firm helmed by a major Trump donor that’s been accused of engaging in extensive deforestation in countries like Brazil. Calls for a boycott didn’t seem to impact oat milk sales, but Oatly’s halo of environmental friendliness took another hit in early 2021 when a U.K. regulator banned some of the company’s ads for making environmental claims that it couldn’t back up with research.
Those who were still sticking with Oatly found other problems in 2021, chief among them: actually being able to find it. In October 2021, the company said that demand was outstripping supply thanks to struggles with the oat supply chain, which meant, at least in the short term, that Oatly obsessives would have to settle for other brands. The supply challenges also forced the company to raise its prices. Then in August of 2022 came a much-publicized voluntary recall of Oatly products, among other beverages, over concerns of bacterial contamination. Oatly also began to lose its appeal as a healthy choice when a vocal subset of online critics began raising concerns about the oat milk’s ingredient list, with many pointing out that despite savvy marketing, it’s not any healthier than dairy milk.
In 2021, New York Magazine dug into why so many people were ordering cow’s milk at fancy coffee shops again, noting that some of the people interviewed were ordering it in a rebellion of sorts from the oat-milk-obsessed monoculture. As criticisms about oat milk became more ubiquitous on platforms like TikTok and Instagram, many consumers likely realized that there is no morally right or virtuous choice when it comes to drinking milk, that every single option is going to have some sort of bogeyman that the diet industrial complex can support. At the same time, many people also want to feel freedom from an obligation to make the right choice — for the climate, for the planet, for their health — when they’re doing something as simple as deciding what to mix with their coffee. Why shouldn’t they drink milk that just tastes good?
And of course, there are plenty of consumers who have and will continue to use plant-based milks, like vegans and those who are lactose intolerant. Others legitimately prefer the taste of almond milk or oat milk, and that’s totally okay. But for a while, choosing oat milk could be categorized as a virtuous choice, whether you were doing it for the environment or simply to eat “healthier,” and that just doesn’t really seem to be the case anymore. In 2022, hot girls drink cow’s milk, an outcome that seemed unfathomable just a few years ago.