This is an oat milk container of the brand Oatly. Oat milk and other plant-based milk substitutes have become very popular in recent years and represent growing awareness for climate change and increasing trends towards veganism.

Why oat milk is conquering the world 

“Which kind of milk would you like in your coffee?” – A question that only about 10 years ago would have caused serious irritation, however, today more than commonly asked in most urban cafés in western cultures.

While in 2008 the only known alternative to cow’s milk used to be soy milk (a rather niche product). Now almost every grocery store offers a wide range of different plant-based kinds of milk made out of oat, rice, almond or coconut, for instance (Eiseler, 2020; Franklin-Wallis, 2019). The boom of plant-based milk was particularly evident in New York in 2018, when demand for oat milk became so strong that the Swedish producer Oatly – which had launched its oat milk in the US only two years earlier – could no longer keep up with production.

From supplying only a few cafés in New York in 2016 Oatly expanded their products to over 3.000 cafés and supermarkets all over the United States (Franklin-Wallis, 2019). Since then, the turnover of the company Oatly AB almost tripled to over 200 million euros in 2020 (Statista, 2021).

Oat milk, as a representative for plant-based milk, has made its way into the hearts of people in the 21st century. But why is that? Where does the sudden hype come from?

Dairy industry as global greenhouse emitter

One contributing factor to the success of plant-based milk is the rising awareness about climate change within the 21st century. Man-made climate change is the result of a multitude of gases in the atmosphere that prevent the sun’s radiation from leaving and thereby heating the earth up. Those gases are mainly CO2, which are produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. These are needed for energy, industry, transport and buildings. However, an additional main greenhouse gas emitter is the sector of agriculture and land use (United Nations, 2022). It is thereby not a secret anymore that cows release methane by their burbs and manure, which drive global warming.


Live-stock farming in large quantities leads to a huge amount of methane, a gas that is thirty times more dangerous in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2) (Head, 2018). This means that not only farming cattle for beef production but also for dairy, contributes greatly to global warming.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, dairy farming contributes about 3 percent to the overall global greenhouse gas emissions (FAO, 2010).

In the last 20 years awareness about climate change and its causes as well as dramatic effects in the foreseeable future, have risen through global civil action movements (Thackeray et al., 2020). This would explain why lots of people decide to use plant-based milk instead of cow milk: to take part in the protection of the planet. Any plant-based milk on average produces significantly fewer greenhouse gases than cow’s milk (Deutsche Welle, 2020).


Veganism and animal welfare

A study by The Vegan Society (2019) revealed that veganism – meaning the nutrition from only plant-based products – is trending in western societies. It showed that the number of vegans has quadrupled in only 5 years (2014 to 2019) in the UK. Reasons for veganism differ for each individual, but according to a survey by BBC News, environmentalism is a frequently mentioned motive to abstain from meat and dairy (2020). Could veganism really solve the climate crisis?

Another reason for many people not to consume cow’s milk is animal welfare. The perception of dairy production has seemed unproblematic for a long time because the images of happy pastured cattle grazing on green landscapes generated the idea that all farmers keep their animals this way (Croney & Anthony, 2011). Some vegetarians, who might think consuming milk does not harm animals, are unfortunately proven wrong by the dairy industry; dairy cows get artificially inseminated so that they can produce milk. Not only do they then live crammed together in the barn and are milked by robots, but they are also pregnant with a calf at the same time. After the calf is born, farmers separate it from its mother, who then gets continuously milked. “No other farmed animal carries this dual load of pregnancy and lactation” (Cousens et al., 2015) showing the extreme daily strain that is put on cattle.

This has brought about public concern and reinforced ethical debates regarding the obligation of humans to provide an acceptable level of care to all living creators – including those exploited for food (Fraser et al., 1997). As a result, industries such as dairy are increasingly being challenged in the first 20 years of the 21st century. This is due not only to their impact on the environment but also to these ethical issues (Croney & Anthony, 2011).

Health Benefits

Yet, greenhouse emissions and animal welfare are not the only motives that bring people to vegan alternatives like oat milk. Apart from the fact that about 68 percent of the world’s population are not able to digest cow’s milk after infancy, the overall question regarding the healthiness of milk has become a matter of controversy (NIDDK, 2021). On the one hand, it is claimed that cow’s milk is a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine. On the other hand, concerns about hormones in milk, like oestrogen, are rising (Brown, 2019). So if cow’s milk is generally healthy for lactose tolerant people, it then remains open to further research. Furthermore, according to a study on the effects of isolation related stress, “psychological stress may adversely affect milk quality by allowing serum components to leak into milk” (Stelwagen et al., 2000). This could be a hint for the husbandry of dairy cows being not only bad for the cattle but also for dairy milk consumers, as a removed calf without a doubt creates psychological stress for a cow.

But what about oat milk? Is it healthy? Yes, many studies have shown that oats bring a variety of nutritional benefits. They contain  a high amount of fibre which is important for digestion (Decker et al., 2014; Goldstein & Goldstein, 2009). The milk extracted from oats is generally very nutritious. Health benefits of oats are consequently another important factor that contribute to the success of Oatly products and oat milk in general.   However, companies like Oatly add substances to achieve the perfect taste and consistency. In a health test, the popular Oatly milk only achieved average results (Thomas, 2019). If people want to make sure that their oat drink is 100 percent healthy, the safest way is to make it by themselves:

Test what you just learned!


Name: Oat milk container (Brand: Oatly)

3D Model

Creator: Paula Dickmann

Date: 21-01-2022

Place: Maastricht

Themes: Environmentalism

Captured with CANON 600D, camera on a tripod, lazy Susan, lightbox (background black)

Processed with Agisoft Metashape Professional Software run on Windows 11 (64 bit)


Physical Object

Size: 7 cm x 7 cm x 23 cm

Weight: 1 kg

Material: Plastic, aluminium, cardboard, inside: layer of polyethylene


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BBC News. (2020, January 2). Veganism: Why are vegan diets on the rise?

Brown, J. (2019). Is it better to drink cow’s milk or a dairy-free alternative? BBC Future.’s%20milk%20is%20a%20good,role%20in%20lowering%20blood%20pressure.

Cousens, G., M.D., & Lynn, L. (2015). Conscious Parenting: The Holistic Guide to Raising and Nourishing Healthy, Happy Children. North Atlantic Books.

Croney, C., & Anthony, R. (2011). Invited review: Ruminating conscientiously: Scientific and socio-ethical challenges for US dairy production. Journal of Dairy Science, 94(2), 539–546.

Decker, E. A., Rose, D. J., & Stewart, D. (2014). Processing of oats and the impact of processing operations on nutrition and health benefits. British Journal of Nutrition, 112(S2), S58–S64.

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Franklin-Wallis, O. (2019, August 1). White gold: the unstoppable rise of alternative milks. The Guardian.

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Head, J. W. (2018). International Law and Agroecological Husbandry: Building legal foundations for a new agriculture (Earthscan Food and Agriculture) (1st ed.). Routledge.

NIDDK. (2021, December 9). Definition & Facts for Lactose Intolerance. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.,world’s%20population%20has%20lactose%20malabsorption.

Statista. (2021, November 22). Net sales of Oatly AB 2012–2020.

Stelwagen, K., Hopster, H., van der Werf, J., & Blokhuis, H. (2000). Short Communication: Effects of Isolation Stress on Mammary Tight Junctions in Lactating Dairy Cows. Journal of Dairy Science, 83(1), 48–51.

Thackeray et al. 2020. Civil disobedience movements such as School Strike for the Climate are raising public awareness of the climate change emergency. Global Change Biology. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.14978.

The Economist. (2018, November 27). How could veganism change the world? | The Economist [Video]. YouTube.

The Vegan Society (2019) Statistics.

Thomas, K. (2019). Hafermilch von Oatly enthält Phosphat und künstliche Vitamine – Unser Testurteil: