Taking aim at sacred cows

Taking aim at sacred cows
Ari LeVaux - 02/18/2021

In what was perhaps the most unusual and divisive Superbowl ad of the year, the CEO of Oatly, which makes oat-based foods and heavily promotes the oat-based lifestyle, sang two verses in a field of oats. Over, and over again. “It’s like milk, but made for humans. Wow, wow, no cow,” sang Toni Petersson. His voice – well, he shouldn’t quit his day job – but like the commercial it wasn’t quite off-key.

The next day, as people sparred over whether the jingle was any good, or what it was even about, the catchy lyric wormed deeper into everyone’s head, even the milk-fed haters. It probably encouraged people to give Oatly a shot, for any number of reasons, while keeping expectations low. By any standard, the commercial was a success.

There is a lot of inside baseball for the food and agriculture nerds to geek out on in that catchy lyric. It references, of course, the dairy industry’s decades-long campaign to push the FDA to enforce its very delicious-sounding definition of milk: “The lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”

FDA also recognizes goat’s milk and sheep’s milk, and the dairy industry is fine with that, but not with the use of milk for beverages made with nuts and grains.

There are signs the dairy industry might be winning, as FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently telegraphed in a 2018 interview, “An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess.” Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s recent rulings suggest a First Amendment approach could benefit the grain and nut milkers. The situation is fluid. And milky.

Petersson’s little croon uses this legal and semantic scuffle to promote his milky stuff as superior to bovine lacteal secretions because it’s been engineered specifically for humans, while “milk” is created by mother cows for baby cows. Since the Superbowl, Oatly’s Oat-Milk has been renamed Oat Drink. Why not “oat juice,” I wonder?

Whatever we call it, the milky beverage made from oats has a leg up on most other nut- and grain-based milky drinks because it has this amazing viscosity, thanks partly to beta-glucans, a type of soluble fiber. And vegan coffee drinkers are coming around to it as the latte milk of choice.

The raising of cows and consumption of milk and meat, of course, are problematic for a host of environmental and ethical reasons, and the impact of cattle includes all of the acres of corn and soy that’s grown to fatten it. This, of course, is part of the excitement conveyed by Petersson’s song’s climax: “wow, wow, no cow.” By making oat juice directly from grains, we can cut the cows, and their greenhouse gases, out of the loop.

Washington Post food and agriculture columnist Tamar Haspel has gone deeply into the weeds on the advantages of mixing other crops like oats into the rotation, in terms of crop yields, soil health and pest management. She particularly likes oats because a bowl of oatmeal will set you back about a dime, which makes it an Earth-friendly way to feed a lot of people.

That bowl of oats contains an impressive amount of protein, minerals and, most famously, fiber. The daily bowl of oats, so known to keep the bowels regular, owes its effectiveness to beta-glucan which has been shown to improve cholesterol levels of both “bad” and “good” types, reduce blood sugar levels, improve gut microbial health and make you feel full.

All of that, and more, packed into a little bitty song. And by creating a debate about its weird commercial, Oatly got those in the know to explain it to those late to the oaty party.

Meanwhile, the company has been at it for 30 years, giving it a significant head start on its competitors, whom, of course, put a target on its back.

Oatly’s rivals even forced the company to list added sugars in its oatmilk, even though no sugar is added. As part of its oat-milking process, Oatly uses enzymes to snip the long starch molecules found in oats into sweet little sugar molecules. By adding those enzymes, Oatly is essentially adding sugar, its accusers claim – sugar that was locked up in those oats. Wow, indeed.

Since I learned about Oatly’s enzymes, I’ve been obsessed with making my own oat drink. Oatly’s website offers a cheerful view of the planet if farms grew oats for people rather than corn and soy for cows, and lots of information on fiber. I figured they would want to help me in my quest to tell people how to make oat drink at home and reached out to the company. I promptly heard back from a bubbly “Sara,” who was grateful for my inquiry. She cheerfully and apologetically declined to discuss the enzymes.

I began ordering enzymes, like amylase, the main enzyme in saliva, and several more digestive enzymes, and mixing them with water and oats that I’d pulverized in the Vitamix. My counter is littered with jars of milky fluids like the chemistry lab of a mad scientist. I was trying to imitate Oatly’s sweetness and creaminess, and my amylase did improve the sweetness. But it was watery, not creamy, with a thick sediment at the bottom that I believed held the key to my missing creaminess.

That sludge makes oat drink nearly impossible to filter. Even a colander will clog. I once brought a jar of homemade oat drink on a car camping trip, and discovered that if you let it settle, you can just pour off the non-gunky part. I also found that you can use the gunk at the bottom to patch a punctured water jug, if necessary. The fibers are that strong. Especially, I presumed, those beta-glucans.

The quest for oatmilk will continue, and I am making progress, trust me. My wife thinks I’m crazy, but that just means I’m onto something. Just wait until my new enzymes arrive.

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