Are you a yogurt fan? Do you swoon for Greek yogurt like so many others? Greek yogurt is a current cash cow (pun intended), pulling in a whopping $3.5 Billion allegedly in sales this past year (source). People cannot get enough of it; demand has skyrocketed. Part of that is a belief that this type of yogurt is healthier and better tasting than its plainer counterpart. But there’s a dark side to the unending demand for Greek Yogurt. One that could have a devastated effect on the environment…
Greek yogurt and acid whey
What you may not realize, as you enjoy that creamy, delicious Greek yogurt, is how it’s created. It takes 3 to 4 ounces of milk to create 1 ounce of Greek yogurt. Unfortunately, the remaining by-product of Greek yogurt is Acid Whey. Therein lies the rub; acid whey is a toxic waste and we are scrambling to find ways to deal with it.
Thankfully we have some strict laws around acid whey dumping. You cannot dump acid whey near a waterway or in a typical landfill (lest it leach into the soil). And there is a very important reason behind this: if acid whey is released into the waterways, it will deplete the oxygen levels, ultimately killing the aquatic life. However, accidents happen – in 2008, acid whey was accidentally released into a creek in Ohio, killing 5 400 fish over 1.5 miles. The need for strict regulations and careful precautions when dealing with acid whey is very clear.
What do we do with acid whey?
Unfortunately there are no industry wide statistics on where all of the acid whey generated from Greek yogurt production is going. Chobani, a New York Greek yogurt company, claims to sell up to 70% of their acid whey waste to farmers. The whey is then used mostly in fertilizer and feed. But the amount one can use is limited. Too much acid whey in the feed waters it down and/or causes digestive upset and disrupts the health of the cattle. And run-off from the fertilizer is cause for concern as well.
No matter how you look at it, this overabundance of waste caused by the spike in demand for Greek yogurt creates a conundrum. “How do you handle all the whey without screwing up the environment?” says Neil Rejman, a dairy farmer in upstate New York, who accepts thousands of gallons of acid whey from Chobani every week (source).
Where to go from here?
Scientists are working hard to find ways to extract nutrients from acid whey for commercial use. If properly isolated, protein and lactose could have potential uses (think baby formula, protein powders, medications, processed food, etc.) While I cringe at the idea of finding lactose in MORE products (a frustrating thing for any lactose intolerant individual), something certainly needs to be done. And with the continuous increase in demand for Greek yogurt, we need viable options soon.
Dr. George Chen from the Australian Research Council Dairy Innovation Hub has made fantastic strides this year (source), so we may very well see more solutions in the near future.
But the issues don’t end there
Even if we ignore the acid whey issue (which we clearly shouldn’t), ever increasing demand for Greek yogurt is still problematic. Since it takes 3 to 4 ounces of milk to create 1 ounce of Greek yogurt, demand for dairy has also increased. New York state, one of the industry’s leading states, created a new law in 2013, changing small dairy farm herd caps (source). Caps increased from 199 to 299, cutting costs and helping farmers to meet increasing dairy demands. Unfortunately, this also means an increase in the environmental impact of dairy farming.
According to the World Wildlife Fund “Dairy cows and their manure produce greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change. Poor handling of manure and fertilizers can degrade local water resources. And unsustainable dairy farming and feed production can lead to the loss of ecologically important areas, such as prairies, wetlands, and forests.” (source)
Let’s not ignore the unfortunate cruelty found in many large scale (and even small scale) dairy productions (source). An increase in dairy demand increases the amount of dairy cows needed, which in turn increases environmental impact as well as the ethical issues behind large scale, industrial farming practices.
What can you do?
Does this mean that you need to stop eating Greek yogurt now and forever? Not necessarily. But it’s important to be aware of potential environmental issues and do what we can do reduce our impact. Buying from small scale, local farmers allows us to not only support our local economy but ask questions. If you have access to locally made Greek yogurt, ask them how they deal with acid whey. Be aware of the conditions and treatment of the animals producing your milk; it’s important that we fund ethical practices. And enjoy Greek yogurt in moderation. There are plenty of other options with less of an environmental impact!
And hey, if you want to enjoy more dairy free alternatives, coconut milk (and other non-dairy milks) creates some pretty awesome yogurt. It’s the only way I roll.
What do you think about Greek yogurt and acid whey? Do you keep it dairy free like I do? How do you ensure that you support ethical farming practices and enjoy the foods you love? Let me know in the comments below.
Health and love,
Thought of the day: There is always more behind the curtains. It’s important that we take a peak.
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