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Greek yogurt’s hidden dark side

Creamy, high-protein Greek yogurt comes at an environmental cost. (Thinkstock)

Coveted for its extra-creamy texture and high protein content, Greek yogurt is certainly having its moment in food trend history.

But, it turns out the $2-billion Greek yogurt industry is all coming at a great cost to our environment -- and is quickly becoming one of the biggest problems in food production today.

The making of Greek yogurt involves whirling fermented milk (also known as regular yogurt) in a centrifugal machine to separate the excess liquid whey from the milk solids. This process concentrates the product, giving it that signature creamy texture and desirable protein content.

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But that liquid whey is highly acidic – even more so than orange juice – and yogurt manufacturers such as Chobani and Danone are having a heck of a time figuring out what to do with it all. If dumped, the liquid runs the risk of getting into streams and waterways. Given whey's acidity, this could quite literally kill off entire fish populations (and has in the past).

The problem is exacerbated by the sheer volume of whey byproduct that comes out of Greek yogurt production. Up to four ounces of milk is needed to make just one ounce of Greek yogurt, and all of that remaining liquid is what manufacturers are struggling to deal with.

There have been some strides in addressing the mass output of liquid whey. As reported in Salon, Chobani and many other manufacturers currently pay farmers to take the whey off their hands, which is then turned into animal feed or fertilizer.

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This practice has long been employed by cheese manufacturers for ridding themselves of the whey output of cheese-making, but it's not overly practical for the mass volume of whey produced by the Greek yogurt industry. Cows can only eat so much whey before it upsets their digestive system, not to mention the horrible smell the acidic liquid emits after a day or two of not being used.

Scientists are currently exploring new ways of putting the whey to work – some options include adding it to infant formula and nutritional supplements as a source of protein, while others have found a way of transforming the milk sugars found in whey into electricity.

Here in Canada, the practice of pawning off the whey on farmers seems to be the only route yogurt manufacturers are taking. The Toronto Star reports that the Quebec-based Danone yogurt factory transfers 50,000 tonnes of whey to local farms for animal food.

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"At Danone in Canada, since we started making Greek yogurt we have disposed of all the extracted whey in a sensible and responsible way via agricultural recycling in the form of animal feed," Danone's communications manager Anne-Julie Maltais tells Yahoo Canada Shine.

While this is effective for now, the process of transporting all of that whey is costly, and another Danone representative tells the Toronto Star that the company is currently discussing new methods of recycling the byproduct.

Danone could not be reached for further comment on what these new methods might be, or when they foresee incorporating these methods into their Canadian Greek yogurt production.

Did you know you can make Greek yogurt at home? Watch the video below for a simple tutorial!