What’s the Environmental Cost of Your Greek Yogurt Habit?

How much do you love Greek yogurt? Well, if you’re reading this the answer is probably somewhere between “Uh, the most?” and “I’m making Greek yogurt batches in my basement sink right now. Why do you ask?” Hey, we get it. The stuff has a velvety smooth texture and just the right amount of tang, and it’s even better for you than run-of-the-mill yogurt. If healthy food tips were always this delicious we’d all be running ultra marathons and living to the ripe old age of 150.

Unfortunately, your favorite dairy product is not quite as great for the environment as it is for you. No, there haven’t been any yogurt tankers running aground and coating seabirds off the coast of Alaska in creamy, delicious milk solids, but there are byproducts from the process of making Greek yogurt that could cause environmental degradation. With rising consumer demand for Greek yogurt, this has become a very real issue – and manufacturers are being forced to explore every option for disposing of more and more potentially destructive waste.

Acidic Waste: It’s Not Just for Nuclear Power Plants Anymore!

The troublemaker in the production of Greek yogurt is a waste product called “acid whey.”  Acid whey is the watery material that’s left behind when the yogurt gets strained – it takes three to four cups of milk to make a single cup of Greek yogurt, and what doesn’t turn into yogurt is separated out as acid whey. You need that straining to develop the pleasant texture of Greek yogurt, but it causes acid whey to pool up quickly.

There’s nothing inherently dangerous about the acid whey – it’s about as acidic as orange juice, and there are no poisons or other dangerous chemicals involved. But manufacturers can’t just dump it down the drain, as even a slight change to the acidity of a river or lake can damage fish. More importantly, any foreign biological waste in an aquatic ecosystem encourages the growth of microorganisms. Those microorganisms deplete oxygen that’s dissolved in the water, creating dead zones where plants and animals are incapable of surviving.

This means that manufacturers have to dispose of acid whey in a responsible manner. That’s always been true, but the question of what do with all the waste runoff has become an even bigger issue with yogurt sales skyrocketing. In 2007, Greek yogurt accounted for just 1 percent of all yogurt sales – by 2012, it was responsible for 35 percent of those sales. Making Greek yogurt has turned into a $2 billion business, and that means more acid whey then ever. The state of New York alone produced 66 million gallons of acid whey in 2011. And it’s all got to go somewhere.

What Happens With Acid Whey?

Ultimately, most of the waste from makingmaking greek yogurt pigfarm Greek yogurt ends up being shipped to neighboring farms. It frequently gets mixed in with feed for cows or pigs, and it can even be used as an ingredient in fertilizer or as a means of generating electricity. Farmers like Neil Rejman, who runs Rejman’s Sunnyside Farms in upstate New York, even get paid to accept the acid whey because there just aren’t many alternatives for yogurt makers looking to get rid of their factory runoff.

Researchers are working on alternate uses for acid whey. Some nutrition specialists think it might make be processed and added to infant formula. Others are trying to extract sugars from the acid whey that might be used in baking. As it stands right now, though, farms are the go-to means of disposing of the waste that comes from making Greek yogurt.

That worries sustainable food enthusiasts like James McWilliams, a professor at Texas State University and food writer. McWilliams argues that we often lose track of the acid whey once it makes it to farms. Farmers get to deal with it as they choose at that point – although they’re also prohibited from simply dumping the waste, McWilliams worries that it’s happening anyway and we’re just not seeing the damage yet.

The solution? “Consumers can take action by limiting or eliminating animal products from their diets, as virtually every aspect of animal agriculture has profoundly negative ecological impacts,” says McWilliams in an interview with CNN’s Eatocracy.

The dairy industry thinks sustainable food fans are focusing on this whey too much. They say acid whey is no different from any other food waste product. Whether you dump a barrel of acid whey or a truckload of broccoli stems in a river, you’re going to create changes within the environment. Greek yogurt manufacturers are being regulated just as closely as any other food-based industry in America, they say.

Still, we think it’s irresponsible to notice this potential problem and not call for more moderate consumption of Greek yogurt. We can’t deny that Greek yogurt is one of our favorites – it’s packed with protein and low in milk sugars, so it’s giving you a great health boost without extra calories. But the potential environmental costs might eventually outweigh those benefits. If sustainable food devotees substitute in some fresh fruit for a bowl of yogurt every now and then, they’ll be able to snack just as healthily while reducing their environmental impact.

Are you willing to ease up on the Greek yogurt snacking throttle now that you know about acid whey? Or is it full steam ahead for the H.M.S. Greek Yogurt? Let us know in the comments section!