Wheying Scales: Greek Yogurt’s Environmental Impact

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charlize theron milk bath

let’s not be evil queens when it comes to the environment.

GREEK YOGURT is inarguably one of the crowning glories of the yogurt industry these days. For those of you who haven’t yet tried this food of the (Greek) gods, the thicker stuff has a consistency and tanginess that makes for a totally different type of yogurt snack, while also making for a potentially-healthier alternative for sour cream and cream cheese in certain dishes. Greek yogurt makes up one-third of all yogurt sales, which is an incredible leap from the mere 1% of sales it was making eight years ago.

Just because something is good and popular, however, doesn’t mean that it comes without its challenges. The problem with manufacturing Greek yogurt is that the process creates a byproduct called acid whey, and no matter how good Greek yogurt is for your health or your taste buds, acid whey just isn’t good for the environment. It takes four ounces of milk to process one ounce of Greek yogurt, so there’s a lot of whey left over at the end. Some of that acid whey can be put to good use, like feeding livestock, but if the excess that is left over after it’s been put to use ends up in the waters, it can deplete oxygen levels and wipe out the populations of fish and other marine organisms that live in them.

The USDA has been trying to figure out what to do with acid whey since 2012, and they finally might be coming close to a fix. Instead of leaving the byproduct in its current form, one idea is to separate out the different ingredients and then market those on their own, to live out different lives within the food industry. Acid whey composition is mostly water, lactose, and protein, and while we’re no chemists, those ingredients seem pretty basic, so this idea seems like it might be a feasible one.

Dr. Karen Smith, a dairy-processing technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research and one of the scientists working on the future of acid whey, is confident that they’ll work it out:

“The world won’t end. We will not drown in acid whey from Greek yogurt… we’ll figure something out.”

Phew. While this lets us carry on eating our Greek yogurt spinach dip/onion dip/guacamole blends with lighter consciences, it does also serve to make us think about the level of responsibility to the environment we have when we manufacture goods for public consumption. Greek yogurt was virtually unheard of a decade ago, at least on a large scale, but with the shift in public consciousness towards consumption of healthier foods, better-quality products like Greek yogurt are available on a much greater basis. And that’s great, but you’ll notice that Dr. Smith’s statement focuses on the fact that “we” — the human population of the world — won’t suffer from overproduction of acid whey and its introduction into the environment. What about the fish and other organisms that are dying — literally drowning, in fact, when they run out of oxygen to breathe in the waters they inhabit — due to our penchant for Greek yogurt in our smoothies and dips?

While it might have been easy to gloss over this glaring discrepancy fifty, thirty, even twenty years ago, we just can’t seem to get over the irony that a product touted to be so beneficial to our health is so detrimental to the health of other species. But story of manufacturing’s life, right? Don’t get us wrong — we’re not calling for a ban on Greek yogurt production or sales. Greek yogurt is the bomb. As society makes the transition towards large-scale manufacturing of healthier food products, though, it needs to remember that the health of other organisms that share the environment with us is worth thinking about, as well. Whether you put stock in the idea of global warming or not, it’s hard to deny the fact that the environment and the world’s ecosystems are changing and that technological advancements have had a hand in those changes. So hopefully Dr. Smith and her contemporaries will find the solution to this problem soon, and in a way that will allow us to have our Greek yogurt and eat it, while also letting the other organisms we share the planet with get theirs, too.

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