Our Food System Is Broken & Oatly Was Founded to Solve For That,” says Chief Strategy Officer Tobias Nordstrom

4 Mins Read

In honour of the brand’s Asian expansion, we talk to Oatly Chief Strategy Officer Tobias Nordstrom about how the company started, why oats and why Hong Kong. 

Oatly was founded in the 1990s. Did the founding team foresee the rise of veganism?

TN: No they foresaw the broken food system rather. Back in their university days, the founders were trying to convert oats into a drinkable format. They knew that 800 million people in the world were starving. They knew the food industry was a broken system- too much land and too many resources were being used to create food. They wanted to find a nutritious crop that grows everywhere and make it accessible to everyone. Oatly was born to address this.

The original early adopters were the allergy people. Fun fact: in the 1960s lactose intolerance was identified in Lund Univ, in Sweden. In 2014, our new CEO Toni Petersson came onboard and he said: we need to address the bigger questions and market that this product is reaching. We did a complete rebrand and relaunched a company focused on transparency, sustainably and nutrition. We wanted to show that it’s possible to run a company in the food industry with these core values without taxing the system.

Why oats of all ingredients?

TN: We selected oats because of its phenomenal qualities. It’s an underestimated crop: it grows everywhere
and has a high nutritional value. Oats contains beta glucan, ie a functional food (as noted by the FDA) that helps reduce cholesterol. Oats can also help balance your insulin resistance. It’s a fairly easy crop to grow, it’s not a drain on land, it doesn’t require a lot of water. We are here for oats. We are not looking to develop other plant milks. We are not a trend follower. We launched this 20 years ago, this is not some trend for us. 

Why did Oatly decide to launch in Hong Kong of all markets?

TN: We see our expansion from a brand point of view. We’ve been in Europe and have seen huge success.
But we don’t see it just from a profitability angle- we are not only focused on the bottom line. We are focused on the sustainability and the nutrition profile of our brand. We need to be everywhere to make that change happen, we need to be global. If someone isn’t thinking from the ecological perspective, it’s our job to convince them to think about it.

There’s a mass awakening about plant-based diets globally. Why do you think that is?

TN: People are becoming more aware of the changes that are taking place in the world: ice caps melting, climate change – the impact of the way we have lived is being seen. The other part is the nutrition. We in the West have been eating a diet that is less and less nutritious. We have more food but it’s got less nutrition. People have started to realise that.

Any upcoming product news you can share?

TN: It’s a big challenge to create our products. In a Big Food product development context, people would say let’s lower the fibre content and increase the sugar level because it will sell more….that would be an easy equation. But we can’t- that’s
not our brand. So we require a whole lot more from our innovation team than the average food company. We also try to keep our ingredient label short and keep additives low. We can stand tall and be proud when we look at our products.
In Sweden, our new ice cream line with indulgent flavours just launched due to the massive demand from the vegan and plant based community. Chilled products will be coming to Asia soon. It’s challenging with fresh products and logistics. We are looking into having an Asian production facility eventually.

What makes Oatly products sustainable?

TN: Compare our Oatly 1 Litre bottle to the same amount of cow’s milk.  Our bottle uses:
  • 80% fewer greenhouse gases
  • 79% less land
  • 60% less energy
Plus there’s the increase in our milk’s nutritional profile. The soluble fibre in our products is the key feature, and our oat milk is enriched with vitamins (not synthetic ones). We are a massive nerd company: 75% of the team is academic in background. It’s a great foundation to found a brand on- pure science. Our marketing team can amplify it but we don’t have to worry-we don’t need to add layers. We can present ourselves plain and simple.

 

Editor’s Note: As told to Green Queen founder Sonalie Figueiras. This interview has been condensed and edited. 


Lead image courtesy of Green Queen.

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