It’s hard to overlook the number of oat drinks on supermarket shelves these days and they are breaking sales records worldwide. This should come as no surprise because there are many benefits to dairy alternatives made from this staple grain. Established dairies and drinks producers as well as green startups are using smart ideas and technologies to exploit the emerging market opportunities.
Not long ago, no one would have predicted a great future for oats. Once a staple food in European kitchens, the unprepossessing grain has recently been regarded as little more than an ingredient for muesli or porridge or as feed for farm animals. Today, oats are experiencing a resurgence in liquid form as a trendy and sustainable alternative to milk. Hard to find just ten years ago, oat drinks are now following the path of the longer-established soy, almond, and rice drinks in meeting the tastes of a modern and health-conscious generation of consumers. What’s more, the newcomer might even outperform its predecessors.
A success story
It all started with the enthusiastic reaction to the new vegan milk substitute in trendy coffee bars. Since then, oat drinks have broken record after record. In 2019, business consulting firm Grand View Research estimated global sales of the mildly sweet product at USD 3.7 billion and forecast annual growth of almost ten percent.(1) For 2020, industry portal FoodNavigator reported 300-percent growth in the key U.S. market.(2) There, oat drinks rank second behind almond drinks and have already overtaken soy products.
Sales are trending upward on the other side of the Atlantic as well. In Germany, for example, they have topped soy and almond drinks combined. Long-established food companies as well as specialized organic producers and major retail chains are including a growing number of oat drinks in their portfolio of plant-based alternatives. The remaining oat growers are struggling to meet the surging demand. It’s little wonder that oat drinks are so successful in Europe. Although they – like all plant-based alternatives – taste different to cow’s milk, the flavor is still a familiar one at the breakfast table. For similar reasons, oat drinks remain a niche product in China and the rest of Southeast Asia, way behind local soy alternatives.
Good reasons for the oat drink boom
Substantial benefits make it likely that oat drink consumption will continue to rise in many parts of the world. Like all plant-based alternatives, oat drinks are lactose-free and low in cholesterol. Although they contain less protein than cow’s milk and soy products, oat drinks pack a lot of fiber and high-quality carbohydrates. Important vitamins and minerals as well as low allergen levels make the product popular with health experts. Researchers in Würzburg, Germany, even named the oat “Medicinal Plant of the Year” in 2017.(3)
Today’s consumers, ranging from flexitarians to confirmed vegans, prefer a plant-based lifestyle especially because of the sustainable production involved. Compared with conventional milk production, there are no problems with the way animals are kept, less land is used, and both water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to a fraction. In terms of environmental and climate benefits, the arguments in favor of oat drinks are very convincing, as evidenced by a widely noted 2018 British study. According to this, growing oats does not result in monocultures, a critical aspect of soy production, nor do oats require intensive irrigation like almonds and rice.(4) In some cases, EU farmers can even claim premiums for preserving the landscape by planting new oat fields.
Turning the milled grain into a drink
The process of turning oats into a market-ready drink is similar to that using comparable raw materials such as rice or millet. First, the milled grain is mixed with water. Several hours of enzyme treatment ensure the characteristically mild sweetness – rather like chewing oatmeal. The valuable nutrients are then extracted using a mechanical process. The resulting base liquid is emulsified with vegetable oil to adjust it to the desired fat content. Salt, minerals, and vitamins may also be added to more fully replicate the nutritional value of cow’s milk. As a rule, oat drinks are subject to ultra-high temperature treatment before packaging because they are usually stored and sold unrefrigerated, like UHT milk.
Advice and proven technology for efficient setup scenarios
Compared with rice or soy drinks, industrially manufactured oat drinks are relative newcomers. It’s not unusual for manufacturers to need several attempts to produce the right properties with an unfamiliar raw material. Even small deviations in processing, temperature, or quantities may make the milk-like viscosity unstable or a premium barista product may fail to yield the promised cappuccino foam. Global industrial technology provider GEA has been committed to sustainable food production for many years and the company’s process experts and specialized test centers provide a high level of support to manufacturers. From decanter centrifuges for extraction to UHT equipment and complete integrated process solutions, GEA can supply all the components needed for production.
Automated hygienic valve and pump technology
Since exact process control is crucial, accurate and reliable pumps and valves play a special role in the plant setup. All the valves are connected to the programmable central control system via digitally networked control tops. A large U.S. organic food manufacturer implemented GEA VARIVENT® valve technology in this way when the company expanded its liquid oat concentrate capacities in 2020. With this fully automated new facility, the company will also be able to depend on reproducible results in any future expansions.
The hygienic design of the valve technology is vital to ensuring the safety of oat drink production and preventing any contamination with germs or incompatible substances. The modular GEA VARIVENT® valve system offers a broad range of combinations for all kinds of applications. The technology is characterized by flow paths with no dead zones to prevent the build-up of residues and a choice of sealing materials that will also withstand oat concentrates with a high sugar content.
GEA’s mixproof valves allow manufacturers to use highly efficient CIP systems that do not require the process to be interrupted for cleaning. GEA also offers valve programs for aseptic filling as well as other special applications.
Hygienic centrifugal pumps transport the oat product, the process water, and the cleaning liquid in accordance with a precise schedule, at the same time ensuring the necessary flow pressure for individual process steps. Special pumps, such as the new GEA Hilge NOVATWIN twin screw pump , can convey highly viscous concentrates as well as the cleaning fluids required, thereby eliminating the need for an additional pump. GEA offers a wide range of other hygienic centrifugal and positive displacement pumps – both standard pumps and flexible products for customer-specific applications.
Manufacturers worldwide are working on new recipes based on liquid oat products – cooking cream, spreads, ice cream, fruit creams, and even fine chocolates. Some producers are already supplying drinks that are not heat-treated but pasteurized like fresh milk and sold in the refrigerated section. German organic beverage producer Voelkel reports that it has exceeded expectations tenfold with its first oat drink marketed in returnable bottles.(5)
The growing incidence of milk allergies and the debate about the risks of keeping animals have raised awareness for plant-based diet options, especially among younger people. A growing number of consumers are recognizing the health and fitness benefits of oat drinks, which is set to boost demand even further. GEA continues to refine its technologies for processing these products efficiently so that manufacturers and plant constructors can benefit from this development in the best possible way.