Calling it ‘Greek yogurt’ doesn’t mean it’s either Greek or yogurt

Posted by
April 30, 2013

Does Dannon really expect us to believe that "an authentic Greek recipe" would contain carrageenan and corn starch?


There’s no doubt that Greek yogurt is all the rage, helping fill up the massive yogurt section of the dairy aisle with even more confusing choices. But if it’s all “Greek” to you, you’re not alone. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t want to touch it and even the National Yogurt Association wants no part of an official definition of what “Greek” is.

In reality it should be quite simple. Yogurt, Greek or not, is simply milk cultured with certain types of bacteria, beneficial bacteria, that transforms the milk into one of the oldest “health foods” there is.  People have been culturing, or fermenting foods for thousands of years.

Greek yogurt is simple as well, the difference being that the finished yogurt is strained to take out the liquid whey, making it quite thick and higher in protein. It’s hard to believe that Big Food could add so many more ingredients to such a basic recipe.

The rise of the Greek yogurt market in the U.S., called “nothing short of astronomical,” by The Wall Street Journal, first entered by Fage and a few years later by Chobani, was something that took the big yogurt leaders Dannon and Yoplait by surprise. They weren’t quite ready to go Greek — but not to worry, food technology had an answer for that.

John T. Allan, director of regulatory and international affairs for the National Yogurt Association told me that “there’s not really any rhyme or reason, because there is no FDA regulation that defines ‘Greek’, so I think the manufacturers out there are just kind of calling it what they want to call it.”

And making a traditional Greek yogurt requires special machinery – described by NPR as a “trade secret” when their reporter visited the Chobani plant. To make millions of pounds of this concentrated yogurt, you can’t exactly strain it through a cheesecloth.

While “Greek” yogurt is specially strained, Allan told me, “you have other products that achieve the same effect by adding protein to thicken it up…it’s the same product, it’s just how you get there.”

Those “other products” include milk protein concentrate (MPC), an additive that is currently the basis of a lawsuit filed against Yoplait USA and its parent company, General Mills, challenging its Yoplait Greek yogurt as being neither Greek nor meeting the FDA definition of yogurt.

The case of the undefined ‘mystery ingredient’

Arizona attorney Hart Robinovitch, who filed the 2012 action against General Mills, told me the case is still pending, after the judge “refused to rule on the merits of our lawsuit and told us to go to the FDA. And that’s what we did.”

Robinovitch’s case revolves around some twisted and confusing FDA regulations about what exactly can be in a product that is called “yogurt,” or more specifically the use of MPC in yogurt, which the attorney describes as a mystery ingredient that is not included in the yogurt “standard of Identity” (the FDA’s official specifications for what ingredients are allowed in certain food products).

“We don’t know what it (MPC) is,” Robinovitch  contends, “as there has never been a definition if it. What is it, where is it coming from, what kind of animal is it coming from?”

According to the nonprofit group Food & Water Watch, just about all of the MPC used in the U.S. is imported and it’s “unclear if imported MPCs are the product of cow’s milk or if they come from animals like yak or water buffalo.” Whatever the case,  it’s “largely unregulated,” the group’s web site notes.

Robinovitch said while he is aware of other products that are similar to yogurt with MPC in them, “they are not called ‘yogurt’,” any more than Kraft can “call Cheez Whiz ‘cheese’.”

Since Robinovitch’s case was filed, Yoplait has introduced a new version called “Greek 100,” this one without the MPC, but with some  decidedly nontraditional Greek-type ingredients such as corn starch, along with an artificial sweetener and preservative.

“The purpose of our lawsuit is to make it easier for the consumer,” Robinovitch added. “If someone is choosing yogurt at the supermarket quickly, as most people do, they shouldn’t be deceived into buying what is really a cheaper product produced with an additive” as opposed to traditional Greek yogurt. “There is a large likelihood of deception there.”