ColumnChobani, the best-selling Greek yogurt in the U.S., has tapped into a market for healthy food, but is it all it claims? We go behind the label to find out.
Founded in 2005 by Turkish immigrant Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani finally launched in 2007 to critical acclaim. The company now commands the top spot in the booming $2 billion a year Greek yogurt category–boasting more than 70 products, and a team of more than two thousand employees around the world.
Greek yogurt is higher in protein than regular yogurt—about twice as much—and Chobani positions this protein source as an excellent workout food. The company also claims its ingredients are “all natural,” and while not organic, Chobani also says none of the dairy used comes from cows fed rBST—the controversial growth hormone common in conventional dairy. But while they claim not to use rBST, the Chobani website also states “According to the FDA, no significant difference has been shown, and no test can now distinguish, between milk from rBST treated cows and untreated cows.”
Chobani products avoid the use of artificial sweeteners. “The sugars found in our products come from milk (lactose), real fruit (fructose), honey and evaporated cane juice (which is less processed than white table sugar and is used to sweeten the fruit, vanilla and chocolate chunk preps used in our authentic strained Greek yogurt products).”
The Shepherd’s Gift Foundation is Chobani’s charitable arm, giving ten percent of all profits to nearly twenty organizations including the Making Waves to Fight Cancer organization, Earthquake relief efforts in Erds, Turkey, Luke’s Wings and Chenango Memorial Hospital.
GMO Inside, the nonprofit organization working to bring attention to genetically modified ingredients in food, recently targeted Chobani for the use of the word “natural,” which is featured prominently on all of its product packaging, website and marketing materials. It’s even earned the conventional yogurt brand a spot in most Whole Foods markets, the retail chain that recently announced it would label all GMOs in its stores by 2018.
While the company does not use milk from dairy cows fed artificial growth hormones, it also does not source organic milk, GMO Inside points out. Conventional dairy cows are most often fed genetically modified alfalfa, corn and soy. The World Health Organization defines GMOs as not occurring naturally. Several leading food producers have faced class action lawsuits over use of the term “natural” on foods that contained GMOs. As a result of the GMO Inside campaign, thousands of customers have petitioned Chobani to switch to organic dairy. But instead of changing its ingredients to those that are truly natural, it appears the company is simply shifting its marketing strategy, opting to focus on the word “real” instead of “natural”, which the company has used for some time.
Even though the company adheres to a ‘no artificial sweetener’ policy, its use of cane sugar landed Chobani with a class action lawsuit in 2012 alleging that the amount of added cane sugar (roughly one-third of the product’s sugar content) violated both federal and California law over ‘no added sugar’ claims. In July 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh ruled that Chobani would not have to pull its products from store shelves over the mislabeling, but did acknowledge the plaintiff’s claim that the products are mislabeled.
The other major issue that’s giving Chobani a bad name is the manufacturing process. One ounce of the Greek yogurt requires three to four ounces of fresh milk, which produces a very acidic whey by-product once processed. According to an expose in Modern Farmer, “it’s a thin, runny waste product that can’t simply 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 large quantities in acid whey are such a huge problem for Chobani that they’re paying farmers to take it off their hands, but there may be another option. Dave Barbano, a dairy scientist at Cornell thinks the protein in acid whey may find a use in infant formula.
While that might very well do away with some of the whey waste, it is essentially offering newborns a concentrated genetically modified food, and GMOs have been linked to a number of serious health issues. Newborns and infants have particularly sensitive digestive systems, which may not be the healthiest use for genetically modified whey.
Recently, the USDA invited Chobani to supply pilot schools with its Greek yogurt as part of efforts to provide school children healthier meals. If successful, the plan is to roll out the Greek yogurt offering to all of the U.S. school systems.
A higher protein food, Greek yogurt may be a step up from the Pink Slime U.S. schools were serving recently. But a six-ounce serving of fruit flavored Chobani can contain as much as 20 grams of sugar (five teaspoons). The recommendation for children is no more than three teaspoons of sugar per day. Granted, some of the sugars in Chobani yogurts are naturally occurring from fruit and the dairy, but cane sugar is the third ingredient listed on its popular blueberry flavor.
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Image: Mr. T in DC