Greek yogurt has become more than a food trend, it’s a mainstay. Consumers love its thick, creamy texture and tangy sour flavor. It tastes so good that it's easy to forget that it's actually a health food, especially if you choose really clean Greek yogurt brands.
But Greek yogurt also has a darker side, especially when it comes to sustainability. In recent years, the industry has come under fire as a result of the massive amount of acidic whey--a byproduct of making yogurt. Acid whey is watery, cloudy, gunk that producers had difficulty dealing with because in the natural world, it’s considered toxic waste.
Acid whey strips ecosystems of oxygen and results in dead zones when it ends up in rivers and streams. But luckily, necessity is the mother of invention, and whether for economic reasons or simple sustainability, Greek yogurt companies have come up with new ways to repurpose their acid whey. Companies, large and small, are finding solutions.
The Nutritional Edge of Greek Yogurt
Greek yogurt has a nutritional edge over plain yogurt for a number of reasons. It has more protein--an average 15 to 20 grams per serving--making it an ideal way to start your day. Add it to your morning smoothie and you’re satiated until lunch. It's also lower in sodium when compared to regular yogurt, low in carbohydrates for those trying to stay slim, and it’s thick and delicious. Its creamy texture makes it a versatile addition to so many recipes, from soups and sauces to baked goods.
What to Do With Acid Whey
The down side of the Greek yogurt industry is the issue of acid whey. Part of the reason that Greek yogurt is so rich, thick, and creamy is because it’s strained additional times to remove whey. The remaining whey is mostly made up of milk sugars, minerals, and water, a combination that's about the acidity of orange juice. Greek yogurt brands have been trying to find new and inventive ways of repurposing acid whey so it's not a drain on the environment.
The Healthiest and Most Sustainable Greek Yogurt Brands
Even the larger Greek yogurt producers like Chobani are exploring new ways to reduce waste. For example, the mega-producer is using a reverse osmosis machine on-site to filter water from acid whey so that it can be reused.
General Mills also recently installed a bio-digester for its Yoplait Greek yogurt to turn the existing dairy solids into combustible biogas that produces significant electricity. According to documents uncovered by Food Navigator, the mega-food producer is also quietly seeking a patent that will allow it to neutralize acid whey with potassium hydroxide and sodium bicarbonate to produce a whey concentrate that can be added to processed foods.
That said, these companies, for the most part, use factory-farmed dairy, and when it comes to Greek yogurt, it’s always best to buy organic yogurt that hasn't been treated with hormones or antibiotics while ensuring that milk-producing cows aren't fed GMOs or synthetic pesticides and herbicides.
It's also best to choose plain yogurt and add your own flavoring like fruit, honey, and nuts. Some flavored yogurts have so much added sugar that they might as well be a candy bar!
We’ve compiled a list of the healthiest and most sustainable brands of Greek yogurt. Stonyfield Organic Greek yogurt, the best-selling organic yogurt brand in the world (which is owned by Danone), tastes great and is made with milk from organically-raised cows, but the company did not respond to repeated attempts to find out what it did with its acid whey byproduct.
1. Wallaby Organic Greek Yogurt
Image via Wallaby Organic
Wallaby Organic Greek yogurt is authentically strained using traditional methods to produce Greek yogurt rather than getting texture from other added ingredients. The yogurt is also organic and it’s good for people who are lactose intolerant. The live cultures break down the lactose which is what, in most cases, people have trouble digesting. Additionally, Wallaby acid whey byproduct is sold to a local treatment facility where it’s converted into methane energy.
3. Clover Organic Greek Yogurt
Image via Clover Petaluma
From the Organic Authority Files
Like Wallaby, Clover's Greek yogurt is strained using more traditional methods. It's organic and delicious. And the company has been around for over a century. The acid whey is taken to dairies and fed to cows, and if there is an oversupply at the dairies it gets blended with manure and used to fertilize the fields.
Smaller (Sometimes Regional) Greek Yogurt Brands
1. Green Mountain Creamery Organic Greek Yogurt
Image via Green Mountain Yogurt
Green Mountain Creamery is a small creamery based in Vermont. Its Greek yogurt is made from five different strains of good bacteria so it packs a punch in terms of gut health. Green Mountain uses locally sourced cows that are fed an organic diet without any antibiotics or hormones. While the company is small, it's invested money into equipment that can purify the acid whey byproduct so it can be sold back to farmers in the form of animal feed. The water from the whey is purified and then repurposed on the farm.
2. Maple Hill Creamery
Maple Hill Creamery produces high quality organic yogurt that’s free of additives, hormones, and antibiotics. Just like other plain Greek yogurts it has ample protein and calcium and it’s low in carbohydrates. The acid whey byproduct produced from its Greek yogurt brand is taken to an anaerobic digester in New York State where it’s turned into electricity that's used to power the city of Cortland.
3. Kalona Super Natural Organic Greek Yogurt
Kalona Super Natural has some of the most natural and delicious products on the market because the company believes in doing less, not more, when it comes to its yummy Greek yogurt. It uses grass fed cows raised on small family farms. The acid whey byproduct is sold and processed into whey protein powder and is used in a variety of products.
What is your favorite Greek yogurt brand? Does sustainability matter when it comes to your shopping? Let us know via Twitter @OrganicAuthorit.
To discover more yogurt faves, check out Barnraiser's collection.
Related on Organic Authority
The Big Truth About the Health Benefits of Yogurt (and What to Look For)
Why I Dumped Greek Yogurt for Icelandic Skyr
What's Greek for Fraud? Chobani Greek Yogurt Targeted for Misleading 'Natural' Claims
Image of Greek yogurt via Shutterstock
This article was updated October 7, 2016.