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My Big, Fat, Greek Yogurt

My Big, Fat, Greek Yogurt

Thanks to its special consistency and unique flavor, Greek yogurt is becoming one of America’s most sought-after foods.

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The increased demand has lead to some controversy. Will the Greek yogurt trend go sour? One of mankind’s oldest foods, yogurt is mentioned in some of history’s most ancient texts—from the Bible, Homer and Pliny the Elder, to Ayurvedic writings. But it’s the Greek variant—with its low fat content, high protein content and creamy texture—that’s currently undergoing a fortuitous renaissance in the United States.

Annual demand is increasing at a dizzying rate, and many predict that the market will double in the next five years. The Greek yogurt explosion in the U.S. can be partly attributed to a Turkish-born businessman, Hamdi Ulukaya, who, frustrated with being unable to find good-quality yogurt in American supermarkets, decided—against the advice of many—to revive an ex-yogurt factory. For over a year, he experimented with the ingredients and enzymes until he got a result he was happy with. And the work paid off: his genuine, traditional product saw a huge boom in sales, and the sudden increase in demand has encouraged other producers to jump into the Greek Yogurt business.

But it’s not just supermarkets that have made room for this creamy, tart, thick yogurt: menus from coast to coast are featuring Greek Yogurt with increased regularity. It’s used in dipping sauces and toppings for savory dishes, as well as appearing by itself—or topped with fruit, cereal, or honey—in breakfast menus all over the nation. New York has also seen the appearance of yogurt bars, as Americans seek a quick, healthy alternative to ice cream. But there’s another side to the coin: as yogurt-mania continues to sweep the States, a controversy is quietly fermenting.

First of all, the traditional recipe for Greek yogurt calls for milk from either goats or sheep—and today’s mass-produced version uses the much more common cow’s milk. And secondly, the Greek method of making yogurt is both time-consuming and expensive, requiring an extra step that is often skipped: the filtration of the whey, which happens when the fermented milk is left to drain. Made in the traditional manner, a kilo of yogurt requires between 3 and 4 liters of milk, and the pressing of the whey lengthens production time and creates leftover waste. These factors reduce profit margins for producers, who are looking for shortcuts or “increased efficiency”.

While the FDA does have some (much-debated) regulations regarding yogurt production, it does not as of yet have a category for the Greek variety, which means that there is nothing legally stopping producers from using additives like protein powder, cornstarch, or tapioca to reach the thick, desired consistency. And to deal with the waste generated from the milk whey, there are only bacteriological solutions, which add a significant cost.

The lack of any coherent national regulation has lead to a civic movement to defend the tradition of Greek yogurt. This is happening from both the bottom—with a class action lawsuit against producers using thickening agents—as well as the top, with the state of New York funding researchers from Cornell University’s Nutritional Science Department in the search for new ways of disposing of the milk whey. New York’s Governer, Andrew Cuomo, is seeking to connect the production of Greek yogurt to the state: as the industry generated $6 billion dollars in 2011, Cuomo has called for an annual “Yogurt Summit”.

It seems that now that the United States has fallen in love with traditional Greek yogurt, they’ll go to extreme lengths to keep making the product the way it was intended. Because, let’s face it: enjoying a sweet Pistachio & Chocolate yogurt, or a savory version with cucumber and agave, isn’t quite the same thing when it’s loaded down with thickeners.

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