No Whey! Is Greek Yogurt Bad for the Environment?

In School Nutrition’s December 2013 issue, Penny McLaren explored the recent food fascination with Greek yogurt in “Eureka! It’s Greek Yogurt.” Following, McLaren uncovers a possible backlash that might damper the growth potential of this product category.

Don’t be surprised if some of your young customers, perhaps older students in particular, raise objections about Greek yogurt. In many communities in the Pacific Northwest, residents take pride in their environmental consciousness. So, when I asked a local teenager in my hometown of Vancouver, Wash., whether she ate Greek yogurt, she quickly replied, “No, it’s not good for the environment.”

What’s the connection between the protein-packed yogurt variety and environmental concern? Excess whey. Whey is a byproduct from the manufacture of strained yogurt (and cottage cheese) and it’s an “acid” whey.

In this case, acid refers to the pH scale, opposite alkaline, and isn’t another word for a toxic substance. Acid whey has about the same acidity level as a banana. But it’s the volume of the acid whey leftover from Greek yogurt manufacturing that is getting negative attention.

Last spring, a Modern Farmer article picked up by more mainstream media outlets, asserted that acid whey, if allowed to enter streams and creeks through runoff from land and fields, would remove oxygen from the water as it decomposed, killing the aquatic life and creating a dead zone. One example centered around an incident in 1982, when leaking cheese whey from a processor killed some 5,000 fish. (Anything spilled in volume in water where the fish live will kill fish. For example, last September, an accidental spill of 233,000 gallons of molasses killed thousands of fish in a Honolulu harbor.)

But the major Greek yogurt manufacturers contend that they are keeping the whey byproduct in check, avoiding spills and dumping in favor of responsible handling. Examples include:

  • use as a fertilizer for crops;
  • being mixed with other animal food and fed to livestock;
  • converted into biomass and eventually electricity; and
  • use in manufacturing infant formula and other nutrient-dense products.

Researchers at Cornell University are working to find additional viable uses for the volume of whey that manufacturers of Greek yogurt are turning out in meeting increased consumer demand. It gives me confidence to tell my teenage friend that when I choose to eat Greek yogurt, I won’t hurt the environment—no way!

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