Skip to main content

Is Your Greek Yogurt Destroying the Earth?

The production of greek yogurt creates acid whey, which can be toxic to the environment.


Your Greek yogurt just might be harming the planet, according to a story at Modern Farmer(which you should all be reading). So, Greek yogurt. You see it everywhere, and you probably even eat it, too. It's healthy and tastes enough like nothing that you can make it taste good. But to make it healthy-enough, there's a menacing byproduct called "acid whey." As Justin Elliott writes:

For every three or four ounces of milk, Chobani and other companies can produce only one ounce of creamy Greek yogurt. The rest becomes acid whey. It’s a thin, runny waste product that can’t simply be dumped. Not only would that be illegal, but whey decomposition is toxic to the natural environment, robbing oxygen from streams and rivers. That could turn a waterway into what one expert calls a “dead sea,” destroying aquatic life over potentially large areas. Spills of cheese whey, a cousin of Greek yogurt whey, have killed tens of thousands of fish around the country in recent years.

This would maybe be OK—or still terrible, just on a tiny scale—if Greek yogurt wasn't now Big Business.

The scale of the problem—or opportunity, depending on who you ask—is daunting. The $2 billion Greek yogurt market has become one of the biggest success stories in food over the past few years and total yogurt production in New York nearly tripled between 2007 and 2013. New plants continue to open all over the country. The Northeast alone, led by New York, produced more than 150 million gallons of acid whey last year, according to one estimate.

Greek yogurt companies are paying farmers to take some of the acid whey off their hands, and the farmers will feed it to cows or mix it in with fertilizer—but they can only do so much. A Cornell scientist also believes that it could be used in baby formula, but the scalability of that, too, is unclear. Others at the University of Wisconsin are working on ways to turn the acid into fructose. And one farmer is converting the acid into methane to then be used for energy, but he's lost over a million dollars in the process.

Now go read the whole story. It's great and contains the phrases "Yogurt Summit" and "the yogurt industry is highly secretive and competitive."

And if you're thinking, If Greek yogurt is such a huge industry, why can't it help Greece's economy?, well, Greek yogurt is "Greek" because it takes after the yogurt, which is traditional in Greece. Most of it, as the problems outlined in Elliott's piece show, is produced in the U.S. Also: Greece has received over $300 billion in bailout funds, and things are still not all that great. Oh well!

UPDATE: Chobani sent me a statement on the acid whey issue. Here it is:

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.