There is one Greek financial success story this year. It comes in a cup with flavors like honey and pomegranate mixed in.
If you’re one of the few people who isn’t already in love with it, Greek yogurt is as thick as sour cream and has a flavor so distinctively tangy, you can feel your taste buds standing up at attention.
Its sales figures make financial types stand at attention, too. Only seven years or so since it started showing up in American stores, annual sales of Greek yogurt have passed the $5 billion mark and are still climbing. Chobani is now the third largest yogurt company in the world, behind Dannon and Yoplait.
And it’s not just taking over the dairy section, where the Greek yogurt displays have grown to cover an entire wall of flavors. It’s in the ice cream coolers as frozen Greek yogurt and in the baby food aisle, too.
The really crazy thing in the Greek yogurt story? It’s not actually Greek. But we’ll get to that.
Rich in nutrients
Is Greek yogurt really that good for you? All yogurt is mostly good for you, says registered dietitian Laura Buxenbaum of Greensboro, a nutritionist for the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association.
“It’s a product I’ve always recommended,” she says. “You want to make sure you’re using the plain, nonfat or low-fat version. Whether it’s Greek or regular yogurt, they’re both low-calorie and nutrient-rich foods. Those probiotics” – the bacteria that make milk into yogurt – “help digestion and boost your immunity.”
What makes Greek yogurt different and gives it an edge in nutrition is the straining. To make it, you start with just milk. It’s pasteurized at the factory and the cream is removed, then bacteria is added, which converts the lactose into lactic acid. The result is yogurt.
Then, to make it Greek yogurt, you strain out the whey. What remains is a yogurt that’s almost twice as high in protein and has half the amount of carbohydrates. It’s also lower in sodium.
The downside: It’s slightly lower in calcium – 20 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance for a serving of Greek yogurt vs. 30 percent for regular yogurt – and a bit higher in calories.
It’s also more expensive. Because it takes 3 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of strained yogurt, Greek yogurt can cost up to three times as much.
You do need to read those labels carefully. Because Greek yogurt has gotten so popular so quickly, there is no federal standard of identity, says Kyle O’Brien, the Charlotte-based vice president of sales for Chobani. Some companies have started taking a short cut by using starches and thickeners.
“You could put macaroni and cheese in a cup and call it Greek yogurt,” he says. “Here’s what’s supposed to be in it. Milk, cultures and fruit. That’s it.”
How it got its name
What is popularly called Greek yogurt actually isn’t Greek. Or, at least, it isn’t only Greek. Many cultures, from Lebanon to Turkey, strain yogurt to make it thicker and richer. In different areas of the world, what Americans know as Greek yogurt may be labeled Turkish yogurt or Lebanese yogurt.
Calling the product Greek yogurt started with the Greek-owned company Fage (pronounced fah-YAY), maker of Total Greek yogurt. The name stuck in the American market because of the popularity and perceived healthfulness of Mediterranean diets.
Greek-style yogurt actually has been around for thousands of years, though, sometimes known as labneh. During the natural foods craze in the 1970s, it was popular to line a strainer with a coffee filter to make yogurt cheese. Guess what that was?
One reason to strain yogurt is to make it easier to use in cooking. Removing liquid makes it stable, so it doesn’t curdle as easily as sour cream or regular yogurt does over heat, says Nicki Briggs, Chobani’s vice president of corporate communications, who’s also a nutritionist.
“It’s such a versatile ingredient,” she says. “I don’t think consumers in the U.S. are used to cooking with it. In other countries, Greek yogurt is something you cook with, not something you consume.”
It can act as an emulsifier, pulling together oil and vinegar in a dressing the same way mustard does. In baking, you can use it to reduce the amount of fat in cakes. In sauces, it can replace cream.
By turning lactose into lactic acid, Greek yogurt also makes a great tenderizer.
That natural acidity also adds a flavor note to recipes, in the same way that chefs often suggest adding an acid to a dish to highlight the other flavors.
“It adds depth to recipes,” says Briggs. “It gives a recipe some life.”