The Greek yogurt craze

Greek yogurt and greek honey

Photo by Lori_NY via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Perhaps you’ve noticed Greek yogurt taking up more shelf space in the grocery store. Perhaps you’ve even contributed to the major uptick in sales over the last few years. As this recent story by William Neuman in The New York Times describes, “National retail sales of the thicker style of yogurt more than doubled last year, jumping to $821 million for a 52-week period ending in October, excluding Walmart stores, according to Mintel [International Group, which studies consumer trends]. The research firm projects that the strong sales growth will most likely continue this year.”

As the story notes, Greek-style yogurt has been a boon to dairy farmers in New York and elsewhere. “Because Greek-style yogurt is strained to give it a denser texture, more milk is required to make it. Industry executives said it typically took about three pounds of milk to make one pound of Greek-style yogurt, compared with the single pound of milk needed to make a pound of traditional yogurt.”

The article concludes with a quote from a dairy regulator with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture attempting to explain the rise in Greek yogurt’s popularity: “It’s nutritious. It’s safe, it’s healthy and it’s delicious. How can you be any better?” Well, for one, it could be made with milk from local, organic, family farms that pasture-raise their cows. (Given my own food choices, that’s why I strained local American-style yogurt rather than buying Greek-style off the shelf when I made tzatziki last summer.)

For a few more answers, we turn to this Mother Jones piece from Kiera Butler, in which she considers two questions regarding Greek- and American-style yogurts: “Which kind of yogurt is more nutritious? And which is better for the environment?”

On the question of nutrition: “Ohio State University nutritionist Julie Kennel Shertzer explained to me that both Greek- and American-style yogurt are made by fermenting milk with live bacteria cultures—the only difference is that Greek yogurt is strained to remove the liquid whey, hence its thicker consistency.” Nutritionally, they are quite comparable, though Greek is somewhat higher in protein and “a bit lower in sugar and carbohydrates, since lactose, a form of sugar present in all dairy products, is removed with the whey.”

On the question of the environment: “Greek yogurt is not better for the environment than American-style yogurt, for one simple reason: It requires much more milk to make…. Considering that dairy farms take quite a toll on the environment and produce a large amount of greenhouse gases … the environmental difference between Greek and American yogurt is fairly significant. There’s another problem, too: What to do with the whey that’s left over from the Greek yogurt straining process? Rolf Carlson, vice president of sourcing and development at the yogurt manufacturer Stonyfield Farm explained that there are two kinds of whey: Sweet whey can be used as a food additive, but acid whey isn’t as useful. Many major yogurt manufacturers give their acid whey to farmers to be used as animal feed or fertilizer, but according to Carlson, farmers must be careful when applying it to cropland, since whey runoff can pollute waterways.” Even if producers build “pricey anaerobic digesters to convert their waste whey into energy to power the factories” as some are planning, the excess greenhouse gases from the problem of additional milk production remains.

Just another example of how our food choices, big and small, are supported by a whole chain of processes — industrial, commercial, cultural, and even “advertorial” — and followed by a host of consequences.

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One comment

  1. zazzman

    The thought I kept having while reading this was that so many people think their small, individual actions have little effect on the world. Afterall, what is smaller than simply buying a cup of Greek yogurt. Thank you for shifting perspectives.

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