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People Are Trying to Figure Out How to Stop Greek Yogurt from Destroying the Planet

Dealing with acid whey has been a real problem for the Greek yogurt industry. But now, several innovative solutions are in the works.
December 8, 2015, 10:00pm

Yogurt is pretty much the least offensive food on the face of the earth. It's milky blandness makes for a riveting experience right up there with plain rice, raw potatoes, and handfuls of flour. Which is pretty damn ironic, considering the $2 billion dollar industry that is Greek yogurt has a fetid, dirty little secret: it may be destroying our planet. Yes, behind its benign appearance, yogurt is pretty much a blight on the environment.

READ: Iceland's Yogurt Industry Has an Acid Whey Problem

The problem is this: To make Greek yogurt, you take three or four ounces of milk and reduce it down to one ounce of yogurt. You get rid of the rest, which is a substance known by the appetizing moniker of acid whey. This stuff—known as the "dark side" of Greek yogurt—becomes dangerous as it decomposes. If you dump it in the ocean, it destroys ecosystems. In fact, one cheese factory in Ohio was forced to pay restitution for suffocating 5,441 wild animals—mostly fish—with the acid whey they dumped in a nearby creek.

Dealing with acid whey has been a real problem for the Greek yogurt industry. But now, several innovative solutions are in the works, according to The Guardian. And they may finally help to solve Greek yogurt's nasty acid whey problem.

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An organization in Wisconsin called the Center for Dairy Research has been looking for solutions. Dean Sommer, who works there as a cheese and food technologist, has spent the last few years of his career concentrating on finding a way to use or dispose of acid whey—and things are looking up. He says, "In just three years, we have come an awful long way from 'What the heck do you do with this stuff?'"

Turns out that acid whey is really just 95 percent water and some other possibly valuable components. One is lactic acid. "As a mixture, [acid whey] is problematic, but this changes when you isolate and purify its components," Sommer says. So his team has been experimenting with spraying the lactic acid from acid whey onto meat to eradicate bacteria. This could be an eco-friendly solution to several recalcitrant problems.

But, as The Guardian points out, the acid whey combat team in Wisconsin is not on this mission alone. In Brooklyn, a small Greek yogurt business called The White Moustache is getting in on the action. A founder of the business, Homa Dashtaki, grew up in Iran where they happily drink the whey left over from yogurt making. As luck would have it, the stuff is filled with protein and calcium. "This is food, and I'm always telling people if they want to eat yogurt they should be drinking the whey. I get so mad!" she says.

Dashtaki would like to rebrand acid whey as "nature's sports drink." It's also good for brining turkeys. The people behind The White Moustache realize that part of the problem is the name. "Calling it acid whey sounds dangerous and hostile," Dashtaki says.

Denmark-based Arla Food Ingredients would have to agree. That company has created a protein powder called Nutrilac Acid Whey, an "added value dairy product." They have also taken acid whey and derived from it a substance called alpha-lactalbumin, which they say can help people with type 2 diabetes.

OK, so these solutions are pretty small in scale when compared to the big business that Greek yogurt has become. But recognizing that acid whey is not just garbage—but has merits of its own—may be the long-term solution to a problem that is no fun, especially if you are a fish swimming in a sea of acid whey.