Oat milk is so popular, it's in the dictionary now. What to know about the dairy alternative

"Oat milk" was officially added to Merriam-Webster's dictionary this month. The arbiter of language defined it as "a liquid made from ground oats and water that is usually fortified (as with calcium and vitamins) and used as a milk substitute." We define it as yummy.

The oat-based drink has been acknowledged as a dairy alternative by the public for years, is available in many coffee shops and restaurants — including popular chains — has been made into ice cream alternatives and has even been subject to shortages due to demand as early as 2018, two years after it arrived in New York City in 2016, according to the New Yorker.

But what does this classification as an official dictionary word mean for the milk alternative?

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Being in the dictionary is 'validation'

Mike Messersmith, president of North America for oat milk brand Oatly, tells USA TODAY that it's a big milestone.

"I think it's a great validation on the journey and path that we're on," Messersmith says.

Oatly, which was founded under a different name more than three decades ago in Sweden, received its first patent for oat milk in 1994. The company brought its product to the U.S. in 2017 and established a coffee-shop presence. At the time, the milk alternative didn't have as large a presence stateside.

Now, oat milk represents 22% of the non-dairy milk category in in the U.S., Massersmith said referencing a June 2022 analysis from Nielsen IQ. And Oatly is far from the only player. There are plenty of oat milks on the market including Planet Oat and Oatsome. Other big name plant-milk producers including Silk, Califia Farms and Chobani, among others.

And there are a lot of oat-based dairy-like products now including Oatly's "Oatgurt" and Oatly frozen desserts — Planet Oat has frozen desserts, too.

Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-based dietitian in Stamford, CT and a nutrition partner with Planet Oat, tells USA TODAY that the recognition of oat milk as a term means the product is going mainstream.

"People are recognizing that this is a household product," Gorin says, adding it's the first thing she sees when she opens her fridge. "I don't have dairy milk."

So what about the dairy alternative makes it so special that its sales have skyrocketed and its name made the dictionary? The term was only first referenced in 1980, after all, according to Merriam Webster. That's a far cry from milk's known first use before the 12th century and even almond milk's first known reference from the 14th century.

A bottle of oat milk and oats on a light background.
A bottle of oat milk and oats on a light background.

Oat milk has a very comparable feeling to dairy milk

Gena Hamshaw, a registered dietitian in New York City and the author of The Full Helping blog, tells USA TODAY oat milk provides something other non-dairy milks don't necessarily give: The right texture.

"I think what oat milk has to offer that soy milk and almond milk don't really have is just ... the texture and that sort of there's like a real neutral flavor and a real creamy texture that I think is very similar to whole milk and I think in that sense it kind of outperforms the others," she says.

And, generally speaking, it's a pretty good "all-purpose" substitute for milk, according to Hamshaw.

Messersmith says taste similarity is really important.

"People grow up with certain tastes," he says. "What we had seen was a growing rise, societally of people willing to try plant based options to try to change their diet and there's a bunch of motivations for that some of it is environmental concerns, some of it is allergen or or dietary sensitivities."

It has to be good enough and comparable enough to factor into people's routines.

Is oat milk a healthy option?

Generally speaking, yes it is a fine option as an alternative to cow's milk.

"I eat it in my household and I recommend it to my clients," Gorin says.

But it's important to keep in mind that dietary needs are individualized. Hamshaw says that whether oat milk is the best option for an individual depends on their health priorities.

So, for example, if you're lactose intolerant or cannot digest dairy, oat milk is a great option. But it's not the most nutrient-dense option on the market in terms of protein.

"From a health perspective, it doesn't have the same amount of protein and then unless it's (calcium) fortified, which many brands are, it doesn't have the same amount of calcium," Hamshaw explains. "So in that sense, it's not as fulsome of an option or as helpful of an option. In the vegan world, I would say it's not my first choice from a nutrition perspective, just because of the protein issue."

Her first choice for a protein priority from a nutritional standpoint is soy milk, which has a protein and fatty acid composition that's most similar to dairy milk, she says. So, that's what she tends to recommend to the parents of young children.

But oat milk has a lot to offer, still. Both nutritionists said they drink and use oat milk regularly. And while it doesn't have as much protein, there are other ways to fit that nutrient into your diet — and oat milk does have other value, too, such as fiber content.

How to use oat milk while cooking

Well, to start, before even getting to cooking, oat milk is great in coffee.

"It's just so much better in coffee than anything else — like I when I first went vegan, soy milk was essentially like the only option that existed. And then almond milk became popular and like cashew milk and stuff," Hamshaw says. "So I've been through many I've been through many years of non dairy milks."

Nothing, she says, compares to oat milk.

Hamshaw also uses oat milk in her cereal, granola and sometimes in oatmeal. But it doesn't stop at breakfast. Oat milk is useful — especially the unflavored oat milk — for other kinds of cooking, too.

"You can substitute it into any recipe that calls for dairy milk, and that's my favorite thing about it," Gorin says.

"I'll blend it up and make a tomato soup or corn soup or any kind of blended creamy soup," Hamshaw says. "It works well for those because it does have such a creamy texture. And I've even used it for things like adding a splash to creamy pasta in the summer. It can work really well for that because it's again it has it does have like a nice richness to it and if you use an unsweetened version, you can use it in savory recipes where you would normally add regular dairy."

Messersmith says taste similarity is really important.

"If you're making your grandmother's mac and cheese or you're making your classic banana bread or something like that, and if you're using a plant based option, that maybe it has a taste off-note or something like that, it can impact the moment that you're in with those things," he says, noting that the taste drives the conversion of cow's milk lovers to oat milk lovers.

Oat milk can be made at home, if you don't want to buy it

Oat milk, like the name suggests, is made from oats and water. The two are blended together and strained to create a non-dairy, gluten-free, nut-free, vegan alternative to cow's milk.

According to most oat milk "recipes," it's pretty simple to make your own at home. All you'd need is some rolled oats, water, a blender and a cheesecloth or nut milk bag. Some recipes call for soaking the oats for a few minutes, while others suggest to just skip the soaking  altogether – the choice is yours.

Hamshaw says that most non-dairy milks are made the same way, by blending a base or substrate such as soybeans, cashews or almonds — or oats or rice — and then straining them. Sometimes, people add seasoning like salt or vanilla, too.

Contributing: Rasha Ali

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oat milk: What to know about the dairy alternative