The rise of Greek yogurt in the United States has been a swift one. Last year, Greek yogurt brought in $1.6 billion in sales, an increase of 50 percent from 2011. It's a remarkable statistic considering that in 2007 Greek yogurt accounted for only one percent of the refrigerated yogurt market -- it's now up to 35 percent. But with growth happening so fast the industry is now dealing with a growing pain: acid whey.
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.
Right now, it seems that much of the acid whey goes to farmers for livestock feed, but even that doesn't deal with the millions of pounds of waste the industry is producing and will continue to produce. Other solutions -- like extracting protein from the whey for baby formula or extracting lactose to use in other food production -- are still in the experimental stages. Dealing with acid whey is seen as such a challenge in the industry that one producer said: “If we can figure out how to handle acid whey, we’ll become a hero.”
Meanwhile, Greek yogurt sales continued to rise in the first quarter of 2013. But from now on the health-conscious consumers the yogurt is marketed to will have to face a bitter, toxic reality. How that impacts America's love affair with Greek yogurt is yet to be seen.
Whey Too Much: Greek Yogurt’s Dark Side [Modern Farmer]