Technology boosts Greek yogurt production, but angers traditionalists

Thickening agents make Greek yogurt faster and cheaper to produce, but they also make yogurt purists angry.
Written by Rose Eveleth, Contributing Editor

There are purists for just about every kind of food you can imagine. Vodka, olive oil, wine - you name it and there's probably a group trying to preserve the traditional ingredients and means of production. The most recent affront to pure, traditional food has begun in the dairy isle, and it's all about Greek yogurt.

If you haven't heard, Greek yogurt is the yogurt du jour - according to NPR's blog The Salt, the past five years have seen Greek yogurt sales swell to about a quarter of the yearly yogurt market. The problem is, Greek yogurt is hard to make. It requires special machines and techniques and straining.

So, to get a piece of the yogurt pie, companies turned to science. The Salt talked to Erhan Yidiz, head of a dairy research group and a man tasked with figuring out how to make Greek yogurt without actually having to make Greek yogurt. Here's how he did it.

To duplicate the Greek yogurt, they started with regular yogurt, then added different versions of starch, obtained from corn or tapioca. As they tweaked the quality and quantity of added starch, they kept measuring those key attributes. "If you can measure something, you can manipulate it," says Yildiz.

Now, this thickening business has the purists all up in arms. Traditional Greek yogurt doesn't have any thickeners, but that's just tradition. There's no rule that says you can't label yogurt made with thickening agents as Greek yogurt, like there are about, say, labeling something Champaign that wasn't made in the Champaign region of France. So companies can get away with taking the short cut and selling something that's like Greek yogurt, but isn't exactly the same thing.

The founder of Chobani, one of the biggest Greek yogurt brands out there, and one of the few who uses the expensive machines rather than the thickener, sides with the purists. "There's no protection around it," he told The Salt. "You could make a bowl of macaroni, call it Greek yogurt, and nobody could do anything to you. Which is sad!"

This certainly isn't the first time the technology has allowed imitation foods to enter the market. Take vodka for example. Many purists believe that Vodka should only be made with potatoes from a small subset of places. But if you look in the liquor store you can find all sorts of things labeled as Vodka.

And this issue isn't going away. The better food scientists get at designing and building flavors and textures that imitate the foods we know and love, the more we'll see shortcuts entering the market. Whether or not that's a bad thing is up to you, perhaps making a cheaper product that tastes just as good is a good thing. Perhaps it undermines cultural history. Perhaps it doesn't matter at all. But one thing's for sure, today's issue might be yogurt, but tomorrow it will be something else. It might even be your favorite food. And you'll have to ask yourself, are you ready to accept anything but the real thing?

Via: NPR, The Salt

Image: imallergic, Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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