In recent years, oat milk has been the “it girl” for your coffee shop order. However, food trends seem to flip-flop between celebrating a food one day and demonising it the next. After the recent years’ popularity of more plant based diets, the current focus appears to be on blood glucose levels, inflammation and hormone health. Because of this, previously trending foods are now being scrutinised for their impact on metrics like blood sugars.
Oat milk is looking like the current product to be ditched. TikTok and Instagram Reels are listing this dairy alternative as a drink to be removed for 2024, citing fears of blood sugar spikes and added seed oils. But is oat milk really harmful?
To understand the potential impact of oat milk on your health, let’s first look at the nature of carbohydrates and how our bodies digest them. All carbohydrates consist of chains of sugars, and their complexity varies based on the length of these chains. The longer the chains, the more “complex” the carbohydrate, as it requires more energy to break down.
The measure of how quickly a food affects blood glucose levels is termed the glycemic index (GI). Oat milk contains a sugar called maltose, which contributes to its sweetness. Foods are assigned a score on a scale of 0 to 100, with higher scores indicating a faster and larger increase in blood glucose.
Maltose, however, has a higher glycemic index compared to other types of sugar like glucose. It’s important to note that a high GI level doesn’t necessarily categorize a food as unhealthy. Oils, for instance, have a low GI level but wouldn’t be considered a balanced diet on their own.
So how concerned should you be about GI and blood glucose levels? The rises and fall in glucose levels are a normal part of our bodies’ physiology. Most people don’t experience extreme spikes or lows in blood glucose levels -even with high GI foods. Our insulin production is able to manage the day to day variations.
While the glycemic index provides valuable information, it doesn’t consider the quantity of carbohydrates in a typical serving of a particular food. This is where glycemic load comes into play. Glycemic load takes into account both the quality (GI) and quantity of carbohydrates in a specific serving of food. The formula for calculating glycemic load is as follows:
Glycemic load is categorised as follows:
Comparing oat milk to other plant-based milk alternatives, such as dairy and soy milk, reveals differences in their nutritional profiles. Dairy and soy milk contain higher amounts protein, making them more satiating choices that have a lesser impact on blood glucose levels. While this might make them seemingly superior from a glycemic index perspective, it doesn’t discount the nutritional value of oat milk.
The nutrient profile of non-dairy milks will vary between brands. I typically recommend choosing an unsweetened, fortified version of your preferred milk. Fortified milks tend to match the level of certain nutrients in whole milk -so if a non-dairy milk is fortified with calcium, it will contain the same amount of calcium per 100ml as milk. Common nutrients that non-dairy milks are fortified with include calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and sometimes iodine. These vitamins and minerals are often lacking in vegetarian and vegan diets, so this fortification can be really helpful. Organic milks are not fortified.
Nutrition is about context, not just individual ingredients. Oat milk is commonly incorporated into drinks like tea or coffee, added to smoothies, or poured over cereal. Its role in your overall diet is significant, and it’s crucial to consider how it complements the variety of meals you consume throughout the day.
Oat milks often contain a small amount of oil such as rapeseed (canola) oil. This helps to improve the texture to be more similar to whole milk and can also make oat milk better able to froth when heated.
There’s a lot of fear around seed oils, which you can read about here. But to summarise, seed oils contain omega-6 fatty acids, which were thought to be pro-inflammatory. Omega-6 unsaturated fatty acids are similar in structure to omega-3s. The thought was that a roughly 1:4 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is best, but our diets are more commonly 1:15 -aka we have much more omega-6 in our diets than omega-3.
However, several studies have not been able to prove this ratio impacting inflammation, so long as people were consuming sufficient omega-3s in their diet.
Another fear of seed oils is linoleic acid, a type of omega-6. Linoleic acid is converted into a compound in the body that has been linked with inflammation. However, more recent reviews of evidence have linked linoleic acid intake to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. And further reviews have found almost no levels of inflammation in people who consumed linoleic acid. In fact, the people who consumed most linoleic acid had the lowest levels of inflammation.
Inflammation is much too complex to mark down to single ingredients. Many compounds found in foods can be involved in both anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory pathways. Overall dietary patterns are much more important than single ingredients.
Rather than focusing solely on individual ingredients, it’s essential to consider how oat milk fits into your overall dietary pattern. Do you enjoy it in moderation as part of a well-balanced diet, or do you rely on it as a primary source of nutrition? Context matters!
For individuals managing diabetes, paying closer attention to the glycemic index and glycemic load becomes more important. However, this doesn’t mean you have to eliminate oat milk from your diet. Pairing it with a snack containing protein, fiber, and/or healthy fats can help mitigate its impact on blood glucose levels.
In the realm of nutrition, it’s essential to strike a balance between health-conscious choices and the enjoyment of what you eat. While some may argue that other alternatives might be more “optimal” based on specific metrics, it’s perfectly okay to have options you genuinely enjoy.
Oat milk is safe to drink, and can be fortified with important nutrients. Even though it has a higher GI and GL than dairy and soy, the context of how we eat meals usually mitigate the impact on our blood glucose levels. People without diabetes don’t typically need to pay close attention to day-to-day glucose variations. If you do have diabetes or insulin resistance, then you may need to pay closer attention to blood glucose levels, but can still include oat milk into a balanced diet.
The decision to drink oat milk should be based on your individual health goals, dietary preferences, and overall nutritional context. Rather than demonising or glorifying specific foods, it’s beneficial to approach nutrition with a broader perspective, understanding that diversity and balance contribute to a healthy lifestyle.