The American Rise of Oat Milk, Explored

Sebastian Muriel
Dec 15, 2018 · 13 min read

Why Is Oat Milk Getting So Popular?

Before we dive into these areas, I’ll detail a brief history of Oatly.

A (Very) Brief History of Oatly

Rickard Öste, the researcher who invented oat milk.

Oat milk was birthed in the 1980s as a result of Rickard Öste’s study on lactose intolerance and sustainable food systems at Lund University in Sweden. The process of creating oat milk involved the use of enzymes to liquify raw oat kernels into a milk-like substance. After finding its striking similarity to cow’s milk in texture and consistency, oat milk became the main product for Oatly, founded by Öste in 1985.

Source: Oatly

The US plant-based industry is projected to grow to $16B by the end of 2018, which isn’t surprising considering the myriad of non-dairy milks available in grocery stores. Oatly certainly had a place to belong next to competing non-dairy milks in the US, though it introduced itself through Intelligentsia Coffee shops in NYC in Fall 2016. Baristas praised it for its creamy texture that worked well with coffee drinks, which spurred coffee connoisseurs and laypeople alike to seek it out apart from their lattes. Oatly asserted its value through its physical qualities that largely resembled dairy milk.

By early 2018, Oatly became a coffeehouse-hold name, and it expanded to a few grocery partners, such as FreshDirect. By summer 2018, Oatly experienced shortages due to high demand, which, according to its general manager Mike Messersmith, allows “the humanness of the company to come through.” Today, Oatly is available in 10K+ coffee shops across the US and you can find them by using their online oat finder. Coffee enthusiasts who patronized Intelligentsia Coffee were ideal mobilizers for Oatly to expand into the marketplace for health-conscious consumers — the two demographics pay a premium for healthy, quality products, making for a seamless transition. Oatly offers its Sweden-based consumers other oat-based products, such as oatgurt, ice cream, oat fraiche, and oat spread. Though, these aren’t available in the US… yet.

“It’s the first time my baristas have gotten behind an alternative milk in an intense way… we started stocking the liter cartons on our shelves because customers were like, ‘I want to take this home.’” — James McLaughlin, President and CEO, Intelligentsia

American Health Culture Needed Oatly

Source: Instagram

American health-consciousness serves as the discourse that motivates purchasing non-dairy milks, organic vegetables, locally-and-humanely-raised livestock, berries, coconuts, pressed juice, açaí bowls, etc. The convictions that drive this behavior are often concerned with environmental sustainability, animal rights, and human wellness. These values prepared the way for Oatly to seamlessly integrate itself in the US plant-based market, because it was an ideal embodiment of these values: sustainability, check; vegan, check; nutritional value, check; gluten-free, check; quirky embrace of its perfection, check. Oatly positioned itself as a groundbreaking non-dairy milk that affirmed American health values with unabashedly playful copywriting on its US website and artful graphics, ranking itself among the health food giants, such as: That’s It, RX Bars, Justin’s Nut Butters, Halo Top Creamery, Beyond Meat, and Hippeas. Moreover, Oatly understands the priorities of health-conscious culture — it caters to curious visitors on its website with transparent explanations of its sustainable practices, ingredients, and manufacturing processes.

“If we wanted to be one of those gigantic food corporations or have some old man behind a wooden desk in a tall building make decisions for us, we would all quit our jobs and go work for an old man behind a wooden desk in a tall building making gigantic food company decisions for us. Don’t hold your breath.” — Oatly’s website, ‘The Oatly Way’

Oatly fits right in with other health food brands.

Oatly’s seamless integration made me reflect on Norton’s discussion of late post-classic Mesoamerican chocolate, which was valued among Mesoamericans and European colonists alike. Norton discerns that chocolate was rooted in “aesthetic, therapeutic, symbolic, and ontological contexts… [that allowed it to be] valued for its social, spiritual, and bodily efficacy.” (27) Oatly’s rise in popularity could be due to its reinforcement of a specific set of American health-conscious values (i.e. vegan, gluten-free, sustainable). If chocolate gained value through its versatile applications (social, spiritual, bodily), which were areas of chief concern to Mesoamericans, then there might be a historical paradigm by which a new product becomes a commodity through its affirmation of cultural values. Oatly reinforces the values of health-conscious culture by appropriating and recasting them vis-a-vis its copywriting and exclusive availability in centers of health/coffee culture (i.e. Intelligentsia Coffee, FreshDirect). Accordingly, Oatly positions itself as a producer of that culture, thereby granting itself significant leverage over its competitors who sell non-dairy milk without the elaborate adornments of health-conscious culture.

Non-dairy (and non-hip) milk alternatives.

Oat milk’s Swedish origins did not limit its expansion to foreign markets precisely due to its affirmation of health-conscious values. Norton discerns that chocolate was one of many non-European products that was distributed because of its location in Atlantic subaltern communities (27). European aristocratic society delighted in trans-Atlantic products in a similar way that American health-conscious society (often middle-high income) delights in healthy products. In both cases, there seems to be an association value to a new product that imbues it with a geographical transferability (chocolate’s Atlantic origins intrigued Europeans, Oatly’s health-conscious features intrigued Americans). Norton goes on to say that chocolate’s association with Mesoamerican rites and therapies “helped ensure [its] movement… across time and space.” (30) This observation compels me to propose that the perceived value of new products acts as an impetus for their geographical distribution, potentially revealing a historically-grounded pattern by which new products insert themselves in markets outside of their origination. In other words, a new product’s landing points of distribution are fueled by its perceived value.

“We’ve heard stories, particularly here in New York, of some of our coffee partners selling Oatly over the counter, almost like black-market oat milk, to their regulars.” — Mike Messersmith, General Manager, Oatly

The cultural origins of these products, however, are subject to erasure — Oatly did not bring with itself facets of Swedish culture; but rather, it shapeshifted into a product that fits neatly with the ideologies and tones of American health-conscious culture (i.e. its graphics/copywriting). It’s worth noting that Oatly’s complete conformity to this culture grants it a higher perception of value, due to the lay theory that healthy products are more expensive (i.e. one quart of Oatly sells for $5 while competing oat milk brand Elmhurst sells for $6). Norton observes that chocolate “brought with it a variety of other facets of the late post-classic Mesoamerican culture” into European contexts (30). Chocolate’s cultural origins were a sufficient selling point for Europeans who fantasized about the New World, which removed the need for its ‘rebranding’ as a European chocolate. The strategic adjustment or erasure of a new product’s cultural origins may be a luxury exclusive to the regulators of the product itself — subaltern actors had no say in how their chocolate would be presented to Europeans. Oatly completely rebranded its Swedish origin as something quirky and valuable to Americans, in an effort to demystify drinking oat milk.

“… consumers believe that healthier food is more expensive than less healthy food… Overall, the healthy = expensive intuition has a powerful influence on consumer decision making, with significant implications for both consumers and marketers.” — Kelly L Haws, et al. Journal of Consumer Research

Oatly’s Intersectional Practices

Source: Tracy Ma/The New York Times; Alamy (hands)

The early modern introduction of New World naturalia in the European marketplace “created a kind of individual skilled in buying, selling, and creating wonder.” (Findlen 302) European collectors who sought out curiosity cabinets were preoccupied with wonder due to the inherent novelty of New World naturalia, which created a demand for individuals who catered to the need for wonder. This dynamic helped me see that the public’s interest in an idea directly influences a relevant marketplace by indirectly yielding new producers. The public concern for healthy and sustainable foods likely compelled Öste to seek out a non-dairy product in his research on sustainable food systems and lactose intolerance at Lund University. It’s worth considering that new products sustain an interplay between consumers and producers that creates new marketplaces built on both parties’ interests. The kind of markets for New World naturalia and Oatly are not one-sided, whereby the producer merely creates the need for the consumer; it’s dynamic, reactive, and connected, whereby the consumer creates the need for the producer, and vice-versa.

Ferrante Imperato’s (an apothecary of Naples) depiction of a Renaissance humanist’s collection of natural history research (curiosities).

The public’s preoccupation with an idea generates networks of producers who rely on one another to meet its unique demands (i.e. researchers, marketers, distributors). Public interest shapes knowledge production by yielding a particular kind of collaborative effort to produce knowledge, which shapes the marketplace accordingly. In the same way that New World naturalia “connected the world of commerce to the study of nature,” (Findlen 299) Oatly connected multiple seemingly disparate demographics, such as baristas, grocery chains, marketers, vegans, coffee connoisseurs, and DIY bloggers. These connections occurred within the marketplace for Oatly, which raises larger questions about the connective properties that new products can gain after being distributed in a marketplace, and how producers can manipulate that connectivity to expand into unconventional markets.

Findlen observes that collectors’ interactions with nature outside of the marketplace “reveals a series of interesting connections between commerce, science, and art.” (301) This intersectionality compelled me to further consider a consumer’s impact on a new product’s evolution in established marketplaces. Consider the basic process to make oat milk at home: blend oats and water together and compress the blended mixture through a cheesecloth into a cup. DIY blogs instructed consumers how to make their own oat milk, which introduced an interdependent relationship between oats, water, and cheesecloths that was mostly irrelevant to Americans before Fall 2016. The functions of oats, water, and cheesecloths were expanded when they collaborated to create oat milk.

It appears that the ways in which consumers interact with a product imbue it with an expanded set of affordances that enable its insertion in interdisciplinary contexts. Oatly indirectly activated a demand for homemade oat milk, which DIY bloggers delivered to enthusiastic consumers, which then evolved the functions of oats, water, and cheesecloths. Additionally, baristas’ affirmation of Oatly allowed it to transcend its original context as a coffee milk and into a standalone dairy alternative. This ripple effect grants a new product leverage that can be wielded to penetrate multiple marketplaces, which can introduce new intersections (i.e. baristas, DIY bloggers).

Oatly’s Indebtedness to Cows

Source: Oatly

After reflecting on Marcy Norton’s view of technology as modular, I considered Oatly’s entire existence as indebted to cow’s milk, because its identifying marker is a dairy alternative, which harkens back to the original dairy (cow’s milk). Oatly is only successful because of its uncanny resemblance to cow’s milk while possessing an environmental sustainability that outperforms almond milk’s massive use of water. Oatly’s praiseworthy textural and nutritional qualities are based on a pre-existing ‘technology’ (cow’s milk). This made me consider Marcy Norton’s conception of technology as “modular, so that any one ‘technology’ or technique is reliant on others, e.g. the technology of print is dependent on technology of moveable type or woodblocks, and moveable type on that of metallurgical technologies.” (26) Oatly’s status as a modular technology renders it as another iteration of an established product.

Source: Oatly

Alternative dairies can eclipse cow’s milk in the same way that mass-produced products can eclipse the original practitioners who created that product (i.e. vegan chorizos eclipsing pig farmers). Despite this consumer-level erasure, plant-based products at large seem to derive their value from their ability to replicate animal products. Alternative plant-based products imitate animal foods’ best qualities (i.e. texture, consistency, taste) and market themselves as a viable replacement option. This dynamic is reflected in the abundance of plant-based alternatives, such as: vegan “chorizo,” vegan “chicken,” and oat-cashew-soy-almond-pea-hemp “milk.” The language with which these products are propagated reflects a larger effort to disguise their status as alternatives and to assert themselves as standalone options. This pattern of replicating the most fundamental properties of established products speaks to a larger idea about new products and their discursive dependence on previously existing technologies (re: Norton). Perhaps this is a new form of technological modularity, whereby new products cling to established products by means of identifying themselves as better versions of something prior, not as something completely new.

The Bigger Picture: New Product Dynamics

After exploring this topic, I think that we can consider Oatly’s American rise against the backdrop of a historical paradigm that underpins the ascent of new products. The cultural values, intersectional disciplines, and technological dependencies that characterize Oatly, Mesoamerican chocolate, and New World naturalia may only scratch the surface of this paradigm. These three areas intuitively loaned themselves to my exploration, though it is certainly not an exhaustive list for what I’m calling “new product dynamics.” I recognize that the anecdotal case of Oatly’s American popularization is limited in its applications to a generalized principle. Nonetheless, my exploration helped me consider at least three new product dynamics (cultural values, intersectional disciplines, discursive-modular technologies). Each of these dynamics is chiefly concerned with popular discourse, which may suggest a subcategory of new product dynamics related to discursive disruption.

How might companies manipulate the new product dynamics that we’ve considered in the case of Oatly? Is it possible to codify new product dynamics? What are the downfalls of such a formalized disruption? Does “disruption” lose its meaning when it’s rendered formulaic by new product dynamics? Oatly’s American popularization has more to do with how new products disrupt marketplaces than non-dairy milk alternatives, and this paper was an attempt at helping us see the bigger picture behind early modern and modern disruptions of the status quo.


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