Oat milk is becoming more and more popular every year. In the USA, sales of oat milk rose by over 50% in 2022 to $527m, making it the most-loved plant-based alternative. It is the market leader in the UK too, with over half of plant milk consumers preferring it over others.
A key driver for the move away from dairy milk is environmental concerns. However, oat milk does not have an unblemished record when it comes to impact on the planet. During the manufacturing process, oat pulp – a gloopy, sticky by-product – is left behind. Oatly made 41,000 tonnes of it in 2020, and that’s just one company in one year. The impact of the total amount of oat pulp made globally is yet to be determined.
In 2021, I sought to find out what happens to that oat pulp. Despite still being completely edible and full of nutrients, Oatly, Califia and Alpro send their oat waste away to anaerobic digestion plants, to make slurry, or to feed livestock. The race was on for the first company to make it into food products for humans.
And that race might now have been won. Elajo, a technology solutions company based in Sweden, claims it has found the answer. Its massive ‘reCirculating Food Dryer’ dehydrates the oat pulp and turns it into a fine, crumbly raw material that can be made into various food products. Moreover, protein can be extracted from the pulp to product meat alternatives.
Elajo told me that its oat fibre can be made into falafel; plant-based meatballs, hamburgers and sausages; flour-based food like bread, cookies, muffins and waffles; and other carbohydrates like pasta, noodles, gnocchi and cereal.
The company has been working with The Green Dairy, one of Sweden’s leading manufacturers of plant-based beverages and food. In 2022, the technology was commissioned in the company’s production facility, meaning that The Green Dairy’s oat waste can now be dried and reused for new foodstuffs on site.
The Green Dairy has heralded it as a way to move towards a circular system. As well as a solution for waste, reusing the oat pulp means fewer raw materials will be needed to produce new food products. However, Elajo were unable to tell me whether the development of new foodstuffs created other waste by-products in the process.
The oat pulp needs to be dehydrated as the material is largely made up of water, and therefore decays very quickly. Storing it to make bread, muffins and pancakes at home is relatively easy, but in large quantities it can be very difficult to handle. But Elajo were not able to inform me about how much energy the machine requires for dehydration. For environmentally-conscious consumers, this will be a key question going forward.
In all cases, making a product on an industrial scale will always have an impact on the environment in some way. It is important to be transparent about the trade-offs and where things need to improve.
Products made from Elajo’s oat fibre are not yet on the market and companies are currently being secretive with their innovations. But this technology may give new opportunities for plant-based food manufacturers to move even further towards a green future.