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Last week the internet mob turned its eye on an unsuspecting subject: oat milk. It started with Twitter user Katherine Champagne, who wrote in a tweet on April 5: “I’m still in awe that Oatly created super sugar grain juice, cut it with canola oil, and then successfully used (amazing) marketing to convince everyone that no, this is Good.” Attached was a screenshot from “Oatly: The New Coke,” an August 2020 story written by Nat Eliason that ran in the Almanack business newsletter. A business writer and digital entrepreneur, Eliason sought to expose Oatly, a wildly popular milk substitute made primarily from oats, for what he claims it really is: junk food.
Predictably, nutrition Twitter went nuts. Plenty of the responses were along the lines of: How dare they market this glorified sugar syrup as healthy! Others were more critical, pointing out that oat milk is far from a “super sugar grain juice” and that most consumers aren’t guzzling the stuff in the quantities (a cup and a half at a time) that Eliason—who has no nutritional education or credentials—suggested in his article. To be honest, after writing about nutrition for a decade, the only thing that surprises me about the controversy is that anyone finds the fact that Oatly is mostly marketing sugar surprising at all.
Eliason’s newsletter story starts by chronicling the long history of brands using misleading health claims to posit that products are better for you than they actually are. He uses the sugar industry, the tobacco industry, and Coca-Cola as examples of this kind of marketing. Then he argues that Oatly is doing the same thing. The article suggests that, like Coke, Oatly is nothing more than a sugar-laden processed drink that has tricked consumers into believing it should be a staple in their diet. He’s right in some ways (more on that later), but there’s a pretty glaring flaw in his argument.
Oatly Is Not Coke
Before we talk about Oatly’s (admittedly sneaky) marketing strategy, let’s get something straight: Oatly oat milk is not nutritionally equivalent to Coke. An eight-ounce serving of Oatly contains 120 calories, 5 grams of fat, 16 grams of carbohydrates (including 7 grams of added sugar), and 3 grams of protein. A 12-ounce can of Coke has a similar number of calories (140), but they come entirely from 38 grams of sugar. Those numbers aren’t even close to equal. Even 12 ounces of Oatly—which Eliason assumes is the amount people put in their morning coffee—contains 24 grams of carbs and 11 grams of sugar. That’s still less than one-third of the sugar in Coke. Saying that the two are equivalent is absurd.
Compare Oatly with 2 percent dairy milk, which has 122 calories, 5 grams of fat, 12 grams of carbs (all from naturally occurring sugar), and 8 grams of protein in an eight-ounce serving. Oatly has less than half the protein of regular milk, about 30 percent more carbs, and a similar amount of fat and calories. And although dairy milk has almost twice as much sugar as Oatly, Eliason claims that the sugar in Oatly—maltose—is significantly worse for you than the sugar in dairy—lactose—because it has a higher glycemic load. “You’re spiking your blood sugar every time you add it to your coffee,” he says.
Just like the marketing tactics that Eliason calls out, the glycemic-load argument falls into the category of true but misleading statements. First, if you’re putting a couple ounces of Oatly in your coffee, you’re only consuming a few grams of sugar and won’t experience any drastic effects. Second, any protein-, fat-, or fiber-containing food will slow the absorption of this sugar. So if you put some oat milk in the coffee that you drink alongside your breakfast, the whole “spiking your blood sugar” thing is a moot point. And to reiterate, even drinking a whole glass of Oatly on an empty stomach wouldn’t have nearly as big an effect on your blood sugar as drinking a can of Coke.
Misleading Marketing Is Nothing New
Oatly may not be Coca-Cola, but it is true that its marketing makes suspect health claims. In 2020, the company tried (and failed) to trademark the phrase “It’s like milk but made for humans” from a campaign designed to convince people that cow’s milk is made for baby calves, and therefore not meant for human consumption. Mothers of many species produce milk specifically to feed their infants. But that doesn’t mean it can’t provide nutrition for other species, too. There is a huge body of evidence supporting cow’s milk for human health, and, most important, unless you’re lactose intolerant, it’s certainly not going to hurt you.
The brand also goes hard on the fact that its product contains fiber, calling it “the most amazing fiber in the drinkable world.” But Oatly only contains two grams of fiber per serving, about 8 percent of what’s recommended daily for women and 5 percent of what’s recommended for men. That’s nothing to get excited over. Oatly also emphasizes the whole “No GMO” thing, although both the World Health Organization and the Food and Drug Administration have repeatedly confirmed the safety of the GMOs available for consumption.
Oatly isn’t the first health-food company or trade organization to cherry-pick facts in its marketing. Marketers for milk have been doing the same thing for decades; the “Got Milk?” campaign implies that dairy consumption is essential for healthy human growth. In reality, there’s nothing magic about dairy milk; it’s a good source of calcium and vitamin D (which is added during processing), but a person can get these nutrients in other ways: Oatly and other plant-based milks are fortified with both nutrients, for example. Plus, many large studies on dairy consumption are funded at least in part by the dairy industry.
Even fruits and vegetables are marketed with vague and misleading claims. The California Avocado Commission runs ads with slogans like “No wonder it’s good for pregnancy” (because avocados contain folate) and “No wonder it’s good for the eyes” (because avocados contain lutein, a carotenoid that’s linked to improved eye health). Yes, these important nutrients are present in avocados, but they’re also found in similar levels in many other foods.
“Superfoods are often designated as such because of high levels of micronutrients, antioxidants, or other arbitrary characteristics,” says Cara Harbstreet, a registered dietitian and owner of Street Smart Nutrition. That’s what the avocado folks are trying to do. But there’s no clearly defined criteria—like nutrient density or bioavailability—that determines which foods qualify for that label, Harbstreet explains. It’s just good marketing.
So, yes, Oatly markets itself as a super nutritious and game-changing beverage, when actually it’s just another drink. But it’s patently unfair to proclaim that Oatly is the same as Coke. “A statement like this carries similar energy as the statement ‘Sugar is as addicting as cocaine,’” Harbstreet says. Yes, the two substances light up the same pleasure centers in your brain, but so do sex, music, and cute baby animals. And sugar doesn’t meet other addiction criteria, like obsessive substance seeking and increased tolerance. “Both statements sound sensational, elicit fear or mistrust of a product, and make you question what you knew or believed to be true,” says Harbstreet. They’re also both based on half-truths.
It’s All Just Food
Oatly has taken a page out of the age-old food-marketing book by making its product sound more nutritious than it really is. This is a little devious, for sure, but it’s nothing new or unique. It’s how marketers trick us into thinking that certain processed foods should be central to a healthy diet, or that some whole foods are superfoods and thus much better for us than other whole foods. Oatly is no superfood, but it’s also not horribly unhealthy. Nutritionally, it’s fairly similar to dairy milk, and actually has more calcium and vitamin D per cup than the real stuff. For people who choose plant-based diets, that’s pretty great.
At the end of the day, there’s truth on every side of the Oatly argument, but there’s also a whole lot of spin. Your best bet, as always, is to eat a variety of nutritious foods (and some of the not so nutritious ones that you love, too!) and pay as little attention as possible to the way they’re marketed.