Well Being

Greek Yogurt: Great Source Of Protein, Terrible For The Environment?

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greek yogurt

It's a sad day when someone publishes a take-down of your favorite health food, but NPR has slowly been chipping away at the Greek yogurt trend, and unfortunately, it's looking like the high protein snack is better for your health than the environment. One could argue that any dairy or meat product is bad for the planet, but what makes Greek yogurt particularly wasteful, apparently, is the removal of whey–the liquid that gets strained off of (real) Greek yogurt to make it thick and protein-rich.

NPR's Dan Charles has been on the Greek yogurt beat, first explaining that not all “Greek yogurt” sold in stores is made authentically; now explaining that the authentic methods behind the popular import are really wasteful–and produce byproducts that aren't so hot for the environment. I was shocked by how much goes to waste:

At the Fage factory in Johnstown, N.Y., for instance, it takes 4 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of authentic Greek yogurt. What happens to the other 3 pounds? It's strained out of the yogurt as a thin liquid called whey, and getting rid of that whey is actually a headache. Greek yogurt factories have to pay people to take it off their hands.

Three pounds of waste for one pound of yogurt seems like…a lot. But to be fair, even cooking with whole, unprocessed ingredients produces lots of “waste”–in the form of vegetable scraps, chicken bones, meat scraps, etc. But the difference is you can use the waste for good (make your own broth and stock, people!) or throw it in a compost pile. Not so with whey:

Unfortunately for Greek yogurt makers, their whey isn't nearly as valuable as what you get from cheese-making. The whey from the Fage or Chobani factories contains fewer solids and is more acidic. So far, nobody's figured out a way to make money from it.

What's more, you can't just dump it into some nearby river; that would be an environmental crime.

George Bevington, an engineer who deals with wastewater treatment in Johnstown, says the whey would set off a boom of sugar-eating bacteria, “and that means there'd be no oxygen left in the river, and that means there'd be no fishies left in the river!”

The Fage factory in Johnstown currently pumps their whey over to Bevington's wastewater treatment plant, where it's put into a large tank with bacteria that feed off of the sugars. The upshot is that the process creates biogas, which can be used to fuel the plant. The downside is that it's still more expensive to run plants that can process Greek yogurt's castoff (which is why Fage has to pay to get rid of their whey), and the plant can't keep up with the amount of whey Fage is pumping out in response to the current Greek yogurt demands.

Other Greek yogurt factories like Chobani pay farmers to offload their whey and use it as fertilizer or add it to cattle feed. But even then, there are limits as to how much each farmer can take before they run the risk of creating runoff that will get into local watersheds.

Greek yogurt's makers are worried about finding economical ways of dumping their waste. (Which, if successful, could potentially make the high-protein snack a little more affordable…yay!) But a bigger question should be: Can we find an eco-friendly way to use all that waste? If not, it might be time to reconsider your addition to high-protein dairy.

Photo: flickr user janineomg