No Whey!? Is the yogurt by-product an eco-problem, or a business opportunity?

Most of the liquid "acid whey" is strained out to make Greek yogurt this thick.  Photo: Jennifer Worthen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Most of the liquid "acid whey" is strained out to make Greek yogurt this thick. Photo: Jennifer Worthen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

There's been a media hub-bub since yesterday about the so-called dark side of NY's Greek yogurt boom. A report by Justin Elliott in Modern Farmer explains that making one ounce of smooth, creamy, protein-packed yogurt, like Fage and Chobani, takes about four ounces of milk.  The remaining three ounces are strained out into a thin, runny liquid called acid whey.

Elliott says it's roughly as acidic as orange juice, and it can't just be dumped.

"Not only would that be illegal, but whey decomposition is toxic to the natural environment, robbing oxygen from streams and rivers. That could turn a waterway into what one expert calls a “dead sea,” destroying aquatic life over potentially large areas. Spills of cheese whey, a cousin of Greek yogurt whey, have killed tens of thousands of fish around the country in recent years."

The New York Post concludes that Greek yogurt is "creating a waste disposal nightmare for the yogurt industry."

Perhaps NY should talk to folks in California.

It was just three days ago when this headline appeared in the LA Times: "State dairymen seek bigger share of whey windfall."

Whey windfall?

The story continues:

"Once thrown away as waste, whey has become a valuable commodity, left over from processing cheese and then used in hundreds of foods, including baby formula and protein powder. Whey has become a profit center for cheese makers that invest in processing equipment."

The by-product from cheese-making is called sweet whey.

That's different than yogurt's acid whey.

Dave Barbano, a dairy scientist at Cornell University, is looking for a cost-effective way extract the protein from acid whey, and use it for baby formula.

“Because the Greek yogurt production grew so rapidly, no one really had the time to step back and look at the other viable options,” said Barbano.

Other researchers are trying to figure out how to get lactose out of acid whey, so it can be used as a browning agent in bread.

For now, New York dairy makers and farmers just want to get rid of it.  Some are mixing it with cow feed, or with farm manure that's eliminated in waste pits.

According to Modern Farmer, one Greek yogurt maker said recently, “If we can figure out how to handle acid whey, we’ll become a hero."

 

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8 Comments

  1. I want at least thirty "whey" puns by the end of the day. Julie got us started in the headline, which was whey out of line.

    Just to get it out of the whey, I want to point out that if there's a yogurt spill in Georgia, you'd have whey down upon the Suwanee River.

    –Brian, NCPR

  2. There should be no "waste product", only substances that have not found a use or a market yet. Everything is recyclable, especially a food substance containing protein, and ultimately, whatever can't be used by people or animals should become compost, and feed the soil, the worms, and the plants.
    Everything eats, everything is eaten…somewhere.

  3. There has to be a good use for that. Pigs aren't crazy about citrus (acidity level?) but I wonder if they would eat the whey from this process. Michael is right – there must be a way to eliminate the concept of "waste products" in yogurt production.

    • That was my first thought.

      Of course, you could always dump it in Whey Pond (near Fish Creek/Rollins Pond).

  4. One "whey" out of the problem is suggested by this research article from the USDA–
    Rural Business and Cooperative Programs Research Report 214:
    "Whey to Ethanol: A Biofuel Role for Dairy Cooperatives?
    http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/rbs/pub/RR214.pdf

  5. No comment……no whey.

  6. You let milk separate into cream and into whey. Whey is the liquid drained off of yogurt, the remaining yogurt is Greek yogurt. Whey can be used in many wonderful ways including in fermenting foods. Most likely toxic whey is a manufacturing byproduct by way of chemical processing. It is easy to produce whey at home and it being totally usable. I wonder why the orange juice industry isn't being trashed for toxicity.

    By the way, soft drinks are a lot more toxic.

  7. I make my own Greek yogurt at home. I save the whey and use it to moisten my dog's food. Whey is full of quality protein and probiotics. Not sure about the reference to "acid whey"; the whey I save certainly doesn't taste acidic in any (ahem) "whey". Wonder if the acidic aspect is due to some chemicalized or other shortcut used to manufacture Greek yogurt on such a massive scale. By-products in the kitchen can easily find a use; manufacture on a corporate scale creates so much by-product that it becomes waste…or pollution.

    In my kitchen, it's just milk, starter, cheesecloth (or paper towel) and a mesh sieve. The finished yogurt has a mild tartness (due to some of the lactose being converted to lactic acid), but the whey does not. It's actually quite bland and very sticky, presumably from lactose.