Greek yogurt has become an increasingly popular low-calorie treat in the United States, as it is thicker and contains more protein than regular yogurt. In fact, the yogurt is in such high demand that total yogurt production has nearly tripled in New York state over the last five years.
But the new diet fad harbors a dark secret. When Greek yogurt is strained, a thin, runny waste product known as acid (sour) whey is left over. According to a new report from Modern Farmer, whey acid – a liquid containing mostly water, lactose (sugar), protein and yogurt cultures – is extremely toxic to the environment, making it illegal to dump. The substance is so detrimental to the environment that if it enters nearby streams and rivers, it robs the water of so much oxygen that fish and other aquatic life start to die off over potentially large areas.
The Modern Farmer report stated that for every 3 to 4 ounces of milk used, Chobani and other manufacturers can only make 1 ounce of Greek yogurt – the rest becoming acid whey. Chobani is so desperate to get rid of the whey, the report maintained, they pay nearby farmers to haul the whey somewhere else. They claim that 70 percent of their excess whey winds up in livestock feed.
But the yogurt industry has remained relatively secretive on the issue, as there are currently no industry-wide statistics regarding where all of this excess whey is going..
Fortunately, the Modern Farmer report noted a possible consumer of excess whey: babies. Dave Barbano, a dairy scientist at Cornell University, believes that the tiny amount of protein left over in acid whey could be used in infant formula. Cheese manufacturers have managed to sell similar products from sweet whey, a byproduct of cheese. Whey protein is sold as an ingredient in body building supplements and in other foodstuffs – and Greek yogurt manufacturers are eager to try the same tactics.
“There are a lot of people coming in and out of New York state looking at whether this is a good opportunity for investment,” Barbano told Modern Farmer.
Other researchers at the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are trying to figure out a way to extract the sugar from acid whey, which could be used as an ingredient in things like icing and bread. And a farm in Scipio Center, N.Y., is hoping to convert the whey’s lactose into methane – which could ultimately be used to generate electricity.
No matter what, the Modern Farmer report maintained that a solution needs to be found as soon as possible, because the development of excess whey isn’t slowing down.