What are the health benefits to drinking oat milk—and how does it compare to other milk alternatives?

Brierley Horton, M.S., R.D.
June 15, 2020
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Billed as a healthy, environmentally friendly way to consume less meat and fill up on more whole foods, plant-based diets have been having a moment recently. So it's not surprising that oat milk—similarly touted for its eco-friendly footprint—has also enjoyed increased popularity as a dairy-free alternative to milk. Last year, the top-selling oat-milk brand, a Swedish brand called Oatly, became so popular that it had to open a production plant in New Jersey to keep up with U.S. demand—but oat milk is also surprisingly easy and cheap to make at home: simply blend water and whole oats until smooth, then strain.

That's good news for people who have to (or choose to) avoid drinking cow's milk. "Oat milk has a mild flavor and creamy texture and is good for people who have dairy or nut allergies," says DJ Blatner, RDN, author of The Superfood Swap. Plus, a Swedish study found that oat drinks have a lower environmental impact than both soy and dairy milks, which makes it a good choice for eco-conscious consumers.

But how does oat milk compare to cow's milk and other plant-based milks nutritionally? Here are some answers to some frequently asked questions about oat milk.

What's in a serving of oat milk?

In a 1-cup serving of oat milk, there are:

  • Calories: 120 to 130
  • Protein: 2 to 4g
  • Fat: 2.5 to 7g
  • Saturated fat: 0 to 1g
  • Carbohydrate: 15 to 24g
  • Sugars: 4 to 19g
  • Added sugars: 4 to 19g
  • Fiber: 0 to 2g
  • Sodium: approximately 120mg

Why are there so many added sugars in store-bought oat milk?

You might be surprised to notice that even unflavored oat milk contains a significant amount of added sugars. As of 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that due to the way in which the natural sugars in oat milk are processed, that they should be identified on the Nutrition Facts panel as "added sugars." And if you're buying flavored or sweetened oat milk, the amount of added sugars can add up quickly—so be mindful before ordering a vanilla oat milk latte with a shot of caramel.

How does oat milk compare to cow's milk?

Based on mouthfeel and consistency alone, oat milk is similar in taste and feel to skim or 1% milk. But based on calories and fat content, many oat milks have a nutritional profile that's closer to that of 2% milk, which has 122 calories in a cup, 5 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 12 grams carbohydrate and 12 grams sugar. Based on those numbers, oat milk has a slight nutritional edge if you're counting fat, calories, carbs or sugar. But if you're looking for protein or to get all nine essential amino acids in your drink, you may want to choose cow's milk if you can: it's got 8 grams of protein compared to oat milk's 3 grams, and provides all nine essential amino acids in one serving.

How does oat milk compare to other alternative milks?

If you have dairy, nut or soy allergies, oat milk may be your best bet to replace cow's milk. But here's how its nutrition profile stacks up to other alternative milks:

  • Soy = 100 calories per cup; highest in protein and potassium
  • Almond = 40-60 calories; lowest in carbohydrates, at 4 to 6 grams
  • Cashew = 60 calories
  • Coconut = 70 calories; highest in fat (4.5 grams, all saturated); lowest in sodium
  • Rice = 130 calories; highest in carbs

The bottom line

Overall, oat milk is a tasty, versatile milk substitute that can easily sub in for cow's milk in recipes, on your morning cereal and in lattes. It falls on the higher end of the calorie spectrum compared to other alt milks, but it also boasts the most fiber of any milk or "milk."

Generally, though, how one alternative milk compares to another comes down to how they're processed and what is—or isn't—added to them. Cow's milk naturally has protein and calcium, and most manufacturers add vitamin D as well, since it aids in calcium absorption for healthy bones.

"Most plant milks don't have much, if any, protein in them," says Blatner. "So then the question is: How will you add protein to your meal?"

So if you're looking for similar benefits to cow's milk in your alt milk, look for oat milk that adds a dose of calcium and vitamin D for a healthy alternative to dairy that's easier on the environment—and remember, it's simple to whip up at home too.