Greeking Out Over Greek Yogurt
By Emily Powell
If you’re reading this, thank you. You’ve taken interest and initiative in digging deeper to learn the story, the truth, the fallacies and the legitimate claims behind our most modern food fad: Greek yogurt (or, more appropriately, Greek-style yogurt. Most of America’s “Greek” yogurt is not made anywhere near Greece). I should disclaim that this article is totally, wholesomely, and entirely biased. I love Greek yogurt with a passion. I buy it in bulk containers from Costco (another kryptonite of mine) and use it in everything from smoothies to salad dressings to tuna salad to potato chip dip, mostly because it is a concentrated, vegetarian, complete source of protein that comes in wonderfully versatile forms. But I digress, let’s get back to the point.
In Armenia, yogurt is katyk. India, dahi. Egypt, zabadi. Sudan, roba. Spain, cuajada. And in Georgia, Russia, and Japan; matsoni. Across cultures and continents, people have been eating yogurt – an innovative, preserved and fermented form of livestock milk – for about 12,000 years. In the beginning, roaming shepherds discovered the fermentation process when carrying their animals’ milk in an intestine sack, leaking the digestive bacteria of the animal into the liquid and turning it into a curdled, sour mess. Alas, yogurt was born. Yogurt eventually became a staple of many ancient cultures—it was a panacea for intestinal discomfort and sunburns and a pleasing dessert for houseguests. Fast forward a few millennia, to the “cheese, yogurt, butter” aisle of our grocery stores. The production process of yogurt is not quite so rudimentary: Hundreds of brands line up neatly on the shelves, with one particular style recently accelerating more in popularity than the dairies of America can nearly handle – Greek.
In 2007, Greek yogurt accounted for 1% of total yogurt sales. Now, this extra-thick, extra-concentrated, extra-creamy product accounts for over 33% of yogurt sold in the U.S. What is it, and how is it made? Greek yogurt is a bitter, lower-sodium, lower-carbohydrates, higher-protein version of traditional yogurt, and, in contrast to traditional yogurt production which yields about a 1:1 ratio of milk to yogurt, Greek-style requires about four pounds of milk to manufacture one pound of yogurt. This leads me to my next point, the real reason you’re reading this: how in the world is this health guru-product sustainable?
Nothing with that pathetic of an efficiency ratio could ever be sustainable, right (I sense a discussion reminiscent of my previous article comparing the efficiency ratios of feed protein required to produce animal protein)? Well, in the literal sense, I guess not. Especially when I tell you that each cup of Greek yogurt produces two cups of a whey acid byproduct, a loosely concentrated cloudy liquid of suspended lactose and whey proteins. However, in a sustainable food system, there should be no such thing as an unusable byproduct, and that’s exactly the goal of our largest yogurt companies. As mentioned in Modern Farmer (1), acid whey from large plants is often sold to farms and incorporated into fertilizer, metabolized for biofuels such as methane in an anaerobic digester (2) or fed to animals. Since acid whey has a tendency to foster huge blooms of sugar-loving algae, disposal into the environment is a definite no-go – waterways could become clogged with algae which deplete the dissolved oxygen for the rest of the ecosystem. However, it is the sheer volume of acid whey that’s produced which is the problem – with the exploding of demands for Greek-style yogurt, acid whey is in abundance, and “all-natural” methods (3) are in development to handle it.
There’s no denying that Greek yogurt has become a craze, and it’s thanks to its incredible amount of protein and other health benefits. I love Greek yogurt because of the low-fat/nonfat content and concentrated protein content, which is ideal as a part of a balanced diet. Traditional yogurt has about 10% more calcium (because calcium tends to get strained out with the acid whey), but Greek yogurt has anywhere from 50% to 400% more protein than traditional yogurt, and it is admirably versatile in the kitchen. From soups to salads to brownies to sauces, Greek yogurt has all of your culinary needs covered (4).
I tend to be skeptical of trends because of the unseen impacts any significant bloom in demand has on our resources. While Greek yogurt is an exception to this principle, every time I reach for a tub of Chobani 0% Original yogurt, the amount of milk, energy, and sheer logistics that were needed to produce it for my consumption crosses my mind. It tends to be a habit of every food I purchase and endorse, and I hope it becomes the same for you. Happy Greeking.
Emily’s exuberant passion for sustainability and sustainable nutrition stems from her everlasting love for the outdoors, people, dirt, and broccoli. As an undergraduate in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Emily is working towards becoming a spokesperson for everyday sustainable food and lifestyle choices, including decisions on what foods you buy, where you buy them, and how you make the most of foods’ energy. Leveraging communication through writing, Emily has been recognized in competitions such as the DuPont Challenge and the Apprentice Ecologist Initiative for her essays on sustainability issues and initiatives, including Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder and community gardens in elementary schools. Emily aspires to utilize relationships with other academic disciplines to plant the seeds of sustainability and nutrition principles in the young adults of her generation. She plans to earn her Registered Dietician credential and work either on the community or personalized sustainable nutrition level.
Hi Emily – I make my own yogurt, and sometimes strain the “regular” yogurt to get the Greek kind, since I love it best that way. I never know quite what to do with the leftover whey, though (except make more yogurt with some of it). Thanks for this article – appreciate the information! I’ll be eagerly looking forward to hear what to do with my leftover whey when some genius figures out how to “recycle” it. My dog doesn’t like it, unfortunately, or she’d get it all!
Marilyn, I haven’t made my own yogurt, but I have strained plain yogurt to thicken it. I used the whey as a 1:1 replacement for buttermilk in pancakes and it worked great.
There are more great suggestions here: http://dontwastethecrumbs.com/2014/05/36-ways-to-use-whey-and-5-ways-to-make-it/
One way around the sustainability issue would be to make your own yogurt at home (or strain store-bought yogurt) and repurpose the whey. Here’s some few ideas to get you started: http://gnowfglins.com/2011/07/20/free-video-whey-what-it-is-how-to-get-it/