Student’s Corner: Why I Gave Up Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt is all the rage in the world of food, and understandably so. It’s more nutritious than regular yogurt, being high in protein and low in calories, and comes in an impressive range of delectable flavors. It is, dare I say, an objectively excellent snack. However, I was recently saddened (read: devastatingly heartbrokenly CRUSHED) to discover that Greek yogurt poses serious threats to the environment that no one yet knows how to fix.

I was formerly under the impression that Greek yogurt possessed some magical quality that regular yogurt did not. I assumed it contained different ingredients or was processed by superior methods. Alas, I was sorely mistaken; Greek yogurt is just regular yogurt with most of the water strained, resulting in its trademark thickness and high nutrition concentration.

The water left behind is the problem. In fact, it’s not really water at all: it’s “acid whey,” and it’s bad news. Acid whey consists of mostly water, but also sugar, protein, and yogurt cultures. It is about as acidic as orange juice. And although it’s safe for us to consume it, organisms living in water aren’t so lucky. It is illegal to dump in waterways because it is so toxic to the environment; it removes oxygen from the water, resulting in massive aquatic life deaths which could seriously disrupt aquatic ecosystems and their services to humans. Unfortunately, for every ounce of Greek yogurt produced, 3 to 4 ounces of gross acid whey water stuff is left over.

Although the harmful byproduct is illegal to dump in waterways, where else is it supposed to go? The recent spike popularity of in Greek yogurt (a now $2 billion industry) indicates that there is a lot of this stuff being produced with no use for it. A report by Modern Farmer found that Chobani has no choice but to pay local farmers to take the whey off their hands, most of which is used to produce livestock feed. But if the animals consume too much of it, it disrupts their digestive systems. Other potential options for its use include putting it in baby formula, using it as an ingredient in weight gain supplements, extracting the sugar to use in other foods, or even converting the lactose to methane, which could potentially generate electricity. Sadly, none of these tactics have been adequately researched and are far from establishment.

All of the articles sourced here mention upstate New York as home to the Greek yogurt processing plants. New York produces the most acid whey over any other state, totaling 150 million gallons in 2012. Thus, this issue hits home for us. Now that I’m aware of Greek yogurt’s dark secrets, I haven’t partaken in its heavenly deliciousness, though it hasn’t been easy to break away from my go-to snack. Breakups are never easy, but they’re a part of life, and I’ll get through it. I’m sure you will too if you decide to no longer contribute to this growing environmental issue.

Edit: Chobani recently spoke out about the issue. Though they did not disclose how they dispose of the acid whey waste they produce, they did confirm that they do not harm the environment in the process. Read more here


Written by Melissa Kullman, class of 2014


Sources: 1 2 3

9 Replies to “Student’s Corner: Why I Gave Up Greek Yogurt”

  1. That’s an interesting point, ZT. There are certainly trade-offs that are made with these kinds of things. I think in an ideal world refugees could still be hired by this company to work on something that doesn’t cause harm to ecosystems or to health. As the article mentioned, something like converting lactose to methane could be an interesting approach which would perhaps allow both to coexist. Just some food for thought.

  2. Just saw this article today, which illustrates how faux-environmentalism can actually hurt a more important social cause:

    “Ulukaya has a big heart, so big that when he first launched Chobani Yogurt, he promised to donate 10% of his profit to international charities. He jokes about that decision: “’ was easier to commit those days because I had nothing to lose.’ But don’t let the joke fool you. He has been hiring refugees to work in his yogurt factories in New York and Idaho for the last five years. Despite warnings against hiring refugees (‘They don’t speak English!’ ‘They don’t have driver’s licenses!’), Ulukaya has made executive decisions to offer employment to people who have fled from hunger, persecution and fear.”

  3. So, um, where’s the evidence that animals actually are consuming too much of it? Why would farmers buy too much of it and overfeed their animals, since they make money by keeping their animals healthy?

    Moreover, since the yogurt companies themselves are paying for this disposal, the cost of whey disposal is *already incorporated into the price of yogurt.* If you were willing to pay for the yogurt at that price, you should feel no guilt doing so.

    And, lastly, why would anyone invest in researching all the “tactics” which you prefer if we all stop buying Greek yogurt?

    You should sit back and think systematically about how environmental tradeoffs work. Jumping onto every hip bandwagon when you read a scary-sounding article is not serious advocacy, and the internet has way too many people who do that already. Pop-environmentalism isn’t just silly; it makes people take real environmentalism less seriously, and hurts environmental advocacy where it really counts. (Such as with climate change.)

  4. At Chobani, we are committed to being a good community partner. That includes finding responsible uses for whey, a natural byproduct of the process to create authentic strained Greek Yogurt. We are constantly exploring the best ideas and options for beneficial whey use.

    Right now, we choose to return whey to farmers, most of whom use it as a supplement to their livestock feed. Some is used as a land-applied fertilizer but only at farms that have nutrient management plans in place with the state environmental conservation agency. A small percentage is also sent to community digesters, where the whey is used to produce energy.

    Amy, @Chobani

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