Greek yogurt is delicious, high in protein, and a good alternative to sugary snacks. However the $2 billion dollar a year industry has a dark side that comes in the form of toxic acid whey. It takes three to four ounces of milk to create yogurt and the rest becomes a runny, hazardous byproduct that cannot be released back into the environment. As it decomposes, acid whey depletes oxygen from streams and rivers, killing wildlife and creating “dead zones” over large areas.
How big is this dairy disaster? In New York State alone, total yogurt output tripled in the past six years. Last year, the Northeast created an estimated 150 million gallons of acid whey. The resulting liquid has about the same pH as orange juice and contains 5-8% lactose, minerals, milk sugar, and some protein. Strained yogurt, which has become more popular than traditional varieties in recent years, forms more waste and is creating a headache for the industry as it struggles to figure out where to dispose of the whey.
Companies such as Chobani has been paying farmers to take dispose of the material. Some mix the whey with silage and feed it to cows, add it to manure and use it for fertilizer, or convert it to biogas for electricity. An alternative to feeding the whey to livestock may be to use the small amount of protein in the whey to act as an ingredient for baby formula. Other research is being done to extract edible lactose, which could be used as an agent to brown bread or included in icings.
Many of the big yogurt companies are being quiet about how they plan to deal with their waste conundrum – whether it’s because some of their developing technologies are proprietary or because they simply don’t know how to handle the situation. As the American appetite grows for Greek yogurt, they need to quickly find a way to dispose of a tidal wave of whey.