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Drinking oat milk – a better choice for health and climate

Interview with Linda Nordgren, Communication Manager at Oatly

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European Business: What are the main differences between oat milk and traditional cows’ milk ?

Linda Nordgren: One of today's biggest challenges is climate change. The food system accounts for 20 to 25% of the world’s total climate footprint and scientists agree that we need to increase the consumption of plant-based foods and reduce that of animal products, both for environmental and health reasons. Choosing an oat drink instead of cows’ milk means a reduction of up to 80% in climate impact, depending on market and product.

As all our products are made from oats, they are naturally rich in fiber and beta-glucans (soluble fiber) which are known to lower cholesterol. cows’ milk doesn’t contain any fibers. The fats in our products are mainly healthy unsaturated fats as opposed to cows’ milk, which has saturated fats. We enrich our oat drink with about the same amount of vitamins and minerals found in cows’ milk. So, there are great benefits of choosing oat drink instead of cows’ milk, both from a health and climate point of view!

European Business: You started your business as a university research project in the 1990s. Today your milk is popular all over the world. Did you have a particular strategy to grow your business?

Linda Nordgren: Ever since the beginning, the approach at Oatly has been science-based and entrepreneurial and it still is. When Toni Petersson, CEO, joined the company in 2012 the vision of the Oatly brand was realigned - from a food brand to a lifestyle brand targeting people with health and sustainability at heart. Turns out, having a clear standpoint and progressive voice is exactly what today’s consumers want, as product demand continues to rise at a fast pace.

Gallery Oatly

European Business: Your mission is to offer plant-based products. To what extent are your raw materials organic and environmentally friendly?

Linda Nordgren: Our mission is to make it easy for people to turn what they eat and drink into personal moments of healthy joy without recklessly taxing the planet’s resources in the process. It’s a huge environmental benefit that all our products are made from oats. If you swapped a glass of cows’ milk for oat drink, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by up to 80%, land use by 79% and energy consumption by 60%. We do have organic products in our range, but there aren´t particularly many since the enrichment of organic products is not permitted within the EU - and enrichment with calcium and vitamins is important for many of our consumers.

As Oatly is a value-driven company with sustainability at our core, we think it’s important to raise awareness around the massive effect our food choices have on the climate. That is why we’ve started labelling our packages with climate footprint as we believe that if consumers become aware of the climate impact caused by various foods, making conscious choices gets a lot easier. We encourage all food producers to be transparent and do the same!

Linda Nordgren
"The food system accounts for 20 to 25% of the world’s total climate footprint. We need to increase the consumption of plant-based foods." Linda Nordgren, Communication Manager at Oatly

European Business: You state that cafes can save 80% of CO2 when using your oat milk. How is this possible?

Linda Nordgren: The 80% figure comes from a Swedish Life Cycle Assessment comparing our original oat drink to cows’ milk. It includes the climate impact of our original oat drink and cows’ milk from ‘cradle to grave’, i.e. from the field to waste disposal by the consumer, and is based on Swedish conditions. The Life Cycle Assessment shows that if consumers were to substitute cows’ milk with oat drink, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 80%.

In 2018, we sold 71,482,745 liters of oat drink worldwide. Assuming that the same amount would otherwise have been consumed as cows’ milk, switching to Oatly resulted in a 56,471-ton reduction in greenhouse gas emissions — as much as would be generated by traveling around the world 11,478 times by car.

As our different products contain different ingredients and are going to different places the CO2e figure will vary depending on which country you’re in, but it is safe to say that swapping animal-based products for plant-based products is always better from an environmental perspective. And as we’re now labelling all our packages with their climate footprint it’s easy for consumers to make conscious choices.

European Business: More people are starting to buy sustainable and organic products. Do you think there will be more changes in the way we eat and drink?

Linda Nordgren: One thing is for sure: Both the production and the consumption of plant-based products are on the rise. For example, more than 540,000 people in the UK are now vegans, which is triple what that number was a decade ago. Since over half of those UK vegans are between the ages of 15 and 34, it looks like the meat-and-dairy-free trend is going to continue. And it’s not just happening in the UK. A global increase in plant-based eating is underway, and it’s reflected in our company’s growth, which is occurring in all of our markets. So, the interest and the will to go plant-based are there. Now it’s incredibly important for the food industry and retailers to step up and make sure plant-based products are available — products that make switching to a more plant-based diet not just possible, but easy and attractive.

Linda Nordgren
"If you swap a glass of cows’ milk for oat drink, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by up to 80%." Linda Nordgren, Communication Manager at Oatly

European Business: The discussion is heating up: To what extent should a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle be introduced by law?

Linda Nordgren: We are of the opinion that people should be able to decide for themselves. Our mission is to help people upgrade their lives without recklessly taxing our planet's resources by offering plant-based products in the dairy section. We aim to spread our message of the importance of sustainable food systems to as many people as possible, because we’re convinced that knowledge leads to change. It’s all about getting a lot of people to make small changes and consuming more plant-based foods. It’s not about turning everyone into vegans.

By having an active voice in the on-going public debate, we hope to be a driving force for the necessary transition of the food system. We drive public opinion through our communication and advertising. As an example: Stating the carbon footprint of food should be mandatory, as food producers should be held accountable to declare carbon footprint in the same way as nutritional values are declared.

Furthermore, we engage in discussions with politicians and decision-makers as well as consumers, suppliers and the research community about how food and beverages affect our climate and our health, and we are involved in research projects aimed at fostering sustainable development in society. Through collaboration, we can work together to increase the scope of the transition to more sustainable eating. And as long as we keep working within the framework of ambitious sustainability goals and can contribute to a broader transition in the food industry, the future is looking pretty great. And of course, or politicians play an important role and can do a lot more to ease the transition to a more sustainable food system. To start off, by offering the same competitive conditions for plant-based and animal products.

Interview: Vera Gaidies | Photos: Oatly