- In just a few years since oat milk first appeared on grocery store shelves, it has become the second most popular plant-based milk, according to sales statistics from SPINS reported by Food Navigator. Oat milk sales represent a total of $213.35 million in the 52 weeks before Sept. 6 — an increase of 350.8% from a year ago for refrigerated varieties and 106.4% for shelf-stable products.
- The most popular plant-based milk is almond milk, which has 63% of the total market. Almond milk sales were worth $1.497 billion in that same 52-week period. Soy milk, with $202.25 million in sales, was edged out of second place by oat milk.
- Plant-based milk has been steadily growing and represented 14% of the milk category last year, according to statistics from the Plant Based Foods Association. Sales of plant-based milk grew 5% in 2019, while sales of dairy milk were relatively flat.
In today's food trends, it doesn't get hotter than oat milk.
The allergy-friendly beverage has seen sales jump during the last year. According to SPINS, oat milk sales have grown 293.7% in the natural enhanced retailer channel, and 345.2% at conventional retailers.
Consumers have become enamored by the taste, similarity to dairy milk, health halo and sustainability features of oat milk. The beverage made from the popular grain can foam and mix like dairy milk, and proponents say it is the most sustainable dairy alternative. Switching from cow’s milk to oat milk can save up to 73% of carbon dioxide emissions, and oats are a sustainable crop that aren't associated with deforestation or excessive need for water, Oatly's former U.K. head David Peters wrote in a piece for Vegconomist.
Oatly, the Swedish brand that was a first mover in the oat milk market, helped launch the massive trend. The company, which currently makes only oat-based dairy products — milk, creamers, yogurt and ice cream — is said to be considering a U.S. IPO next year, which could value the company at $5 billion. During the summer, it sold a $200 million stake to a group of investors, including Blackstone Growth, Oprah Winfrey, Natalie Portman and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
And Oatly is poised to be able to produce more of the products the U.S. is buying up. Last year, Oatly opened a factory in New Jersey that makes 750,000 gallons of oat base — the sticky liquid that is the base for all of its products — each month. Earlier this year, Oatly opened another factory in Utah. And the company this summer leased a property in Philadelphia to become a U.S.-based research and development lab.
But Oatly is far from the only player in the U.S. oat milk market. Danone, Chobani, Nesquik and Califia Farms have all come out with oat milk versions of beverages and products. As an ingredient, oat milk has been used in energy drinks, beer and chocolate.
It's hard to say if oat milk will dethrone almond milk, the reigning champion of dairy alternatives. Almond milk first topped plant-based dairy sales in 2013, also surpassing soy milk. Consumers like its taste and texture, as well as almond milk's relatively low amounts of calories, fat and carbohydrates.
Almond milk does carry significant sustainability concerns, however. Most almonds are grown in California, and it takes a lot of water to grow each nut. Researchers have found an individual almond takes a gallon of water to reach maturity. There are about four or five almonds in a cup of almond milk. While this sounds very water intensive, almond milk is probably less of an environmental hazard than conventional cow-based dairy, activists say.
Oat milk, on the other hand, performs extremely well on sustainability calculators because oats are not as water intensive to grow. Oat milk also ranks high on two important nutrients today: protein and fiber. And it's allergy friendly. Tree nuts and soy are among the most common food items that U.S. consumers are allergic to.
All of these factors combined — taste, performance, nutrition, sustainability and hype — have succeeded in catapulting oat milk among the top of the dairy alternative category. As far as whether it stays there has a lot to do with the segment as a whole. As long as more consumers keep reaching for plant-based milks — and manufacturers keep oat milk on the shelves — it's bound to maintain its popularity.