Oatly Responds in Defense of its Ingredients

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post analyzing the ingredients in Oatly to determine whether it's a healthy plant-based milk alternative. I concluded that Oatly has about the same blood sugar impact as Coke, that rapeseed oil found in Oatly is harmful, and that the inclusion of phosphate additives is problematic.

Here's Oatly's response to my post:

"I’d love to clear a few things up about that blog post, as it contains some misinformation and speculation about our ingredients.

First, regarding sugar - the author is correct about our production process (we’re very proud of it and transparent about it!). We use natural enzymes to liquefy our oats, as this process enables us to make a super creamy oatmilk that retains much of the goodness from the oats, like carbs, protein, unsaturated fat and soluble fiber (beta glucan). As part of this process, the enzymes convert some of the starch in the oats into sugar, similar to how the human body converts starch to sugar during digestion. Since these sugars are a result of our production process, the FDA considers them to be added, which is why they’re labeled as “added” sugars on our nutrition panels. Sugar is found in lots of foods, including cow’s milk. Our non-flavored oatmilks contain 7g sugar per 8oz serving, which is less than the amount of sugar in cow's milk.

We haven’t tested the GI or GL levels of our oatmilks. However, while maltose is the main sugar found in Oatly, the GI of pure maltose can't be assumed to be the same as that of our oatmilk given our oatmilk's fiber, fat and protein content, all of which affect the GI value and make oatmilk more of a liquid food. It’s also worth noting that a person’s whole diet should be considered when looking at glycemic effect, as people usually eat a few different (if not many different) foods at the same time, all of which come into play (for example, most people tend to consume oatmilk with a little coffee or tea, or with cereal, in a smoothie, etc.).

Next, regarding rapeseed oil - we specifically chose rapeseed/canola oil for our products due to its great nutritional profile (low in saturated fats, rich in unsaturated fats, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids than most other oils). Contrary to what the author notes, the oil we use actually has a trans fat content of less than 0.1g/100g, and we only use non-GMO, expeller pressed rapeseed oil. We’ve been using this type of oil in our products for over two decades over in Sweden, where non-GMO rapeseed oil is a common feature in Nordic diets.

Regarding phosphates and nutrition, phosphorus (along with other nutrients like calcium) is needed for the maintenance of normal bones and teeth. The author of the blog post may be interested to know that recent new advice on phosphates issued by the European Food Safety Authority stated that phosphates are essential nutrients--and  it considered both naturally occurring phosphorus from food as well as phosphorus from food additives as phosphates. The main food categories contributing to phosphates were milk, bread and meat, and our oatmilk actually has a phosphorus content on par with that of cow’s milk as a result of our added dipotassium and calcium phosphates. With all this said, it’s the total amount of phosphate/phosphorus in a diet that counts most, not the source of the phosphorus.

Finally, regarding vitamin D, the author is correct that we use D2 because it’s a vegan-friendly source of the vitamin, which is crucial to our products. However, the Swedish Food Agency has stated that D2 and D3 are equally efficacious.

I know that’s a lot of info to digest, so feel free to come back with questions at any time! We put a lot of thought into each of our ingredient choices and make them with both the health of the planet and human health in mind. We never add anything that’s not totally approved for consumption and are always happy to chat."

I really appreciate the response from Oatly. We’re all trying to do our part in making the world a better, healthier place, so it’s great to see Oatly participating in the conversation about the best way to do that.

That said, let's break down this response, point by point...

SUGAR

“First, regarding sugar - the author is correct about our production process. […] Since these sugars are a result of our production process, the FDA considers them to be added, which is why they’re labeled as ‘added’ sugars on our nutrition panels. Sugar is found in lots of foods, including cow’s milk. Our non-flavored oatmilks contain 7g sugar per 8oz serving, which is less than the amount of sugar in cow's milk.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a process that uses enzymes to convert starch into sugar, but the issue isn’t the amount of sugar in a glass of oat milk or how that sugar is produced, it’s the type of sugar. Whether that sugar is “added” according to the FDA or created through an industrial production process is semantics that aren’t relevant to glycemic load. How the sugars got into the oat milk doesn’t affect oat milk’s impact on blood sugar, but what type of sugars they are certainly do.

Oatly’s primary sugar, maltose, has 2.3 times the blood sugar impact as lactose, the primary sugar in cow’s milk. Maltose has a glycemic index of 105, compared to 46 for lactose.

I’m not advocating for people to drink cow’s milk, but if we’re comparing the sugar in Oatly to the sugar in cow’s milk, we need to be looking at the type of sugar, not just the amount of sugar, the same way we look at the type of fat and not just the total fat.

“We haven’t tested the GI or GL levels of our oatmilks. However, while maltose is the main sugar found in Oatly, the GI of pure maltose can't be assumed to be the same as that of our oatmilk given our oatmilk's fiber, fat and protein content, all of which affect the GI value and make oatmilk more of a liquid food.”

Oatly points out that their oat milk contains fiber, fat and protein content that affect its GI (glycemic index) value. When I made the point that Oatly has the same blood sugar impact as cola, my analysis did reflect the small amount of fiber and protein present in Oatly. The analysis did not include fat, because with such little protein, the amount of fat in a serving of Oatly has a minimal effect on blood sugar response [1].

I did, however, make a small miscalculation in my original post. I had used the fiber content of Oatly to calculate the glycemic load of the oats part of Oatly, but not to calculate the glycemic load from maltose (the sugar found in Oatly). I re-ran my calculations to determine what the blood sugar impact of maltose would be in the context of one gram of soluble fiber. 

According to the research, each gram of beta glucan (the fiber in Oatly) reduces the glycemic index of carbohydrates/sugars by 3.8 points, meaning that the one gram of soluble fiber (beta glucan) in a serving of Oatly would lower the glycemic index of maltose from 105 to 101, still off-the-charts high and about the same GI as pure liquid glucose [2].

Even with the slightly lower glycemic index for maltose due to the soluble fiber content, I get more or less the same result for Oatly’s blood sugar impact: a glycemic index of 77 (previously 79) and a glycemic load of 18.4 (previously 19.0) for a 12 oz portion; still about the same blood sugar impact as a 12 oz cola, which has a glycemic index of 63 and glycemic load of 20.8.

You can see my full calculations here.

“It’s also worth noting that a person’s whole diet should be considered when looking at glycemic effect, as people usually eat a few different (if not many different) foods at the same time, all of which come into play (for example, most people tend to consume oatmilk with a little coffee or tea, or with cereal, in a smoothie, etc.).”

As it relates to Oatly’s blood sugar impact, a person’s “whole diet” throughout the day is less relevant than the foods eaten alongside the oat milk. What someone eats in the evening has little to no effect on the blood sugar impact from an oat milk latte in the morning. The portion of the diet eaten with the oat milk is most important to consider, but maybe that’s also what Oatly is getting at since they go on to cite a few examples of foods eaten with oat milk (coffee, tea, cereal, smoothies, etc). 

Oatly mentions that people may consume Oatly with cereal. Consuming Oatly with cereal may take the blood sugar matter from bad to worse. Most cereals are simply processed carbohydrates and sugar. Adding carbohydrates to oat milk will hurt, not help, blood sugar response. Pouring 12 oz of Oatly into a cup of Corn Flakes would result in about the same blood sugar impact as drinking two cans of Coke.

While it’s true that moderate levels of protein, fat, and fiber all help to reduce the blood sugar impact of a meal, I would imagine that Oatly oat milk is often consumed on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning or between meals. As Oatly states in its response, many people consume Oatly with coffee or tea. I’ve never seen someone make an oat milk latte to accompany their protein- and fat-packed lunch or dinner, and a shot of espresso or cup of tea alone is going to have little to no effect on the resulting blood sugar spike.

Having Oatly in a smoothie, made with healthy fats and protein, like an avocado, some nut butter or protein powder, and maybe even some greens for extra fiber, would help in blunting the blood sugar response, but you’re still left with the industrial seed oil…

RAPESEED OIL

“Next, regarding rapeseed oil - we specifically chose rapeseed/canola oil for our products due to its great nutritional profile (low in saturated fats, rich in unsaturated fats, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids than most other oils). Contrary to what the author notes, the oil we use actually has a trans fat content of less than 0.1g/100g, and we only use non-GMO, expeller pressed rapeseed oil.”

Rapeseed oil is not a health food. We’re in trouble if we’re relying on industrially processed rapeseed oil as our source of omega-3’s. It’s like saying cake is a great source of calcium. Cake may contain calcium, but that doesn’t mean we should eat cake in order to get enough calcium. 

Furthermore, the omega-3 found in rapeseed oil is in the form of ALA, as opposed to the more bioavailable EPA and DHA. When you consume ALA, it needs to first be converted into EPA or DHA before it can be used by the body. However, this conversion process is inefficient in humans. Less than 10% of ALA is converted into the bioavailable forms EPA and DHA [3, 4].

When ALA is not converted to EPA or DHA, it is simply stored or used by the body as calories.

Regardless of ALA, EPA, or DHA, all omega-3’s are extremely delicate fatty acids that oxidize easily, even more delicate than omega-6. There’s evidence that the oxidation of omega-3’s–caused partly by exposure to high heat–may cause organ damage, inflammation, carcinogenesis (cancer), and advanced atherosclerosis (heart disease) [5]. 

The production of rapeseed (canola) oil is an industrial process that requires high-friction and high-heat. Many of those unstable omega-3’s are already oxidized in the rapeseed oil before they even make it to an Oatly production facility [6].

Omega-3 oxidation is partly what gives spoiled fish oil its unpleasant smell and taste. As fish oil oxidizes, new byproducts begin to form in the oil called lipid peroxides, as well as harmful aldehydes. However, the delicate omega-3’s in fresh fish are protected by the flesh and naturally present antioxidants of the fish, even when cooked at moderate temperatures.

Like with spoiled fish oil, an unpleasant smell also forms in the production of rapeseed oil; however, that smell is masked through refining, including a high-heat deodorization step.

Here’s a video showing how solvent extracted rapeseed/canola oil is produced:

Oatly points out that they use expeller pressed rapeseed oil (as opposed to solvent extracted oil). What’s the difference?

In solvent extraction, rapeseeds are soaked in chemicals such as hexane that help extract more oil from the seeds. 

In expeller pressing, rapeseeds are mechanically pressed and subjected to high heat–up to 464℉ (240°C)–but without chemicals. Expeller pressed is not the same as cold pressed.

Cold pressing oils refers to the ancient method of stone grinding or milling, as in the crushing of olive oils. Cold pressed oils must be produced below 122℉ (36°C) [7].

Here are the steps for producing expeller pressed rapeseed oil [8]:

  1. Seed cleaning. Rapeseeds are separated and cleaned to remove impurities such as plant stalks and dirt.
  2. Seed conditioning and flaking. Seeds are pre-heated to about 95℉ (35℃), then “flaked” by roller mills to rupture the cell wall of the seed.
  3. Seed cooking. The seed flakes are cooked by a series of steam-heated cookers. Typically, this heating process lasts 15–20 minutes at 176–248℉ (80°–120°C).
  4. Pressing. Next, the cooked canola seed flakes are pressed in a series of screw presses or expellers. Even without additional heating, the pressure and friction involved in pressing produces heat of 140–210℉ (46°–85°C).
  5. Refinement. The pressed oil is then subjected to the refining process, also known as “RBD” or Refined, Bleached & Deodorized in the industry. Oils such as rapeseed/canola, soybean, sunflower, and safflower are also “degummed” and/or “winterized.” This is what makes the oils have such a light color and flavor. 
  6. Deodorization. To remove any remaining off-flavors, the refined oil is deodorized at temperatures of 446–464℉ (230°–240°C) for 20–90 minutes [9].

I’m not implying that anything industrially processed is inherently unhealthy, but subjecting polyunsaturated fats (like those found in rapeseed oil) to high temperatures leads to a host of issues. In addition, our unprecedented consumption of omega-6 fats found in seed oils such as rapeseed would be near impossible without industrial processing that extracts those omega-6 fats from inedible seeds [10]. Consumption of rapeseed/canola oil has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome, poor memory, decreased brain function, inflammation and oxidative stress.

Rapeseed/canola oil is a highly processed, toxic oil. Studies that show otherwise are typically sponsored by the canola industry [11, 12, 13, 14, 15].

I recognize that there are not a lot of affordable, healthful oil options. Rapeseed oil happens to be one of the least expensive edible oils in the world, along with palm and soybean oil, and it’s tough for other healthier oils to compete with rapeseed’s low price. Like palm and soy, there are environmental concerns with rapeseed, but there are also environmental concerns with cow’s milk, and the topic of this post is health, so I won’t go into sustainability.

Organic cold-pressed avocado oils and high-oleic sunflower oils are better options, but they are significantly more expensive and have environmental costs of their own. Ideally, Oatly would remove the oil all together, like it does in some of its Swedish products, but I understand that removing oil probably isn’t an option for the oat milk provided to cafes. It needs to foam, froth, and perform similarly to cow’s milk, and oil helps it do that, along with providing a fuller mouthfeel. 

"We’ve been using this type of oil in our products for over two decades over in Sweden, where non-GMO rapeseed oil is a common feature in Nordic diets."

Rapeseed/canola oil may be a common feature in today’s Nordic diets, but it certainly isn’t a traditional Nordic food. Rapeseed oil was used as an industrial lubricant and oil for machinery until the 1970s, when scientists discovered a way to remove the high erucic acid content that made it so toxic. Until the 1970s, rapeseed couldn’t even be fed to livestock. In the 1980’s, European farmers were offered subsidies to grow the high-yielding rapeseed, leading to its popularity and prevalence.

PHOSPHATES

"Regarding phosphates and nutrition, phosphorus (along with other nutrients like calcium) is needed for the maintenance of normal bones and teeth. The author of the blog post may be interested to know that recent new advice on phosphates issued by the European Food Safety Authority stated that phosphates are essential nutrients--and  it considered both naturally occurring phosphorus from food as well as phosphorus from food additives as phosphates. The main food categories contributing to phosphates were milk, bread and meat, and our oatmilk actually has a phosphorus content on par with that of cow’s milk as a result of our added dipotassium and calcium phosphates. With all this said, it’s the total amount of phosphate/phosphorus in a diet that counts most, not the source of the phosphorus."

I understand that there’s not anything inherently wrong with phosphorus, but there’s also nothing inherently wrong with sugar. The dose makes the poison.

Regarding the new advice on phosphates issued by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), they also stated: “Estimated total intake of phosphates from food may exceed the safe level set by EFSA after re-evaluating their safety. EFSA’s scientists also recommend the introduction of maximum permitted levels to reduce the content of phosphates when used as additives in food supplements as those who take them regularly may be at risk.”

The Washington Post ran a story called Why phosphate additives will be the next taboo ingredient where they go as far as to say that, “phosphate additives will be the trans fats of the future; at one time prevalent throughout our food supply, and eventually banned due to overwhelming evidence of their negative impact on human health.” 

While I think they go too far in demonizing phosphates, and rely on observational studies to make their health claims, they also point out that only 40-60% of phosphorus in real food is absorbed, whereas 90% of phosphate additives are thought to be absorbed. This would mean that while Oatly and cow’s milk may list “phosphorus” in similar amounts on nutrition labels, Oatly may contain up to twice the digestible amount of phosphorus as compared to cow’s milk.

It would be one thing if people were deficient in phosphorus, but most Oatly oat milk drinkers are over-consuming, not under-consuming, phosphorus. The recommended daily allowance of phosphorus is 700mg per day [16]. A large latte with oat milk contains 540 mg, or 77%, of the recommended allowance. If phosphates indeed are absorbed twice as much as natural phosphorus, then a large serving of Oatly would contain the equivalent of 1,080 mg of phosphorus, or about 154% of the recommended daily allowance.

There is one study that contradicted those findings and found phosphate additives to be only slightly more bioavailable than phosphorus from real food, but the authors still concluded, “Although interesting, and potentially important for measuring dietary phosphorus exposure, additives are still a major source of dietary phosphorus that can be eliminated from the diet[.]”

VITAMIN D2

Finally, regarding vitamin D, the author is correct that we use D2 because it’s a vegan-friendly source of the vitamin, which is crucial to our products. However, the Swedish Food Agency has stated that D2 and D3 are equally efficacious.

I understand using D2 to keep it vegan-friendly, but there are also vegan-friendly versions of Vitamin D3, although once again they are more expensive than the less-than-optimal conventional alternative. Regarding efficacy, the huge majority of studies show that Vitamin D3 is superior to Vitamin D2 for increasing and sustaining 25OHD levels in the blood [17]. 


CONCLUSION

I don’t think Oatly is some evil company, nor do I think it’s a bad company. It’s simply a company trying to produce a tasty, affordable, plant-based milk alternative. Unfortunately, Oatly oat milk uses an industrial seed oil to make it froth and foam, uses a production process that produces high-glycemic maltose sugar in order to appeal to taste buds while not listing sugar on the ingredients list, and includes phosphate additives for a creamier mouthfeel.

I understand the business reasons why Oatly includes maltose, industrial seed oil, and phosphate additives in their oat milk, but that doesn’t mean that we, the consumers, should drink it. 

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