Greek yogurt. It was a revelation when I first tried it – thick, rich, and creamy. This protein-rich yogurt was a favorite of mine before I figured out that dairy and I don’t mix well. Since that first bite so many years ago, the Greek yogurt craze has boomed. With factories churning out Greek yogurt in large amounts, it has created a problem, a whey problem, according to this article at Modern Farmer.
Greek yogurt is made by straining out the whey, as this is what makes it so thick and creamy. In a farmer’s kitchen, this small amount of whey is unlikely to cause any problem, and can be beneficial to the farm. However, what happens when you have hundreds or thousands of gallons of whey in one location?
The problem with whey is that it is acidic and is teeming with bacteria (good bacteria, granted). It can cause environmental hazards when dumped in large quantities. For example, when cheese whey was accidentally released into a stream it depleted the oxygen in the stream and killed hundreds of fish
. As natural of a product as whey is, you can’t simply pour it in vast amounts into streams, oceans, or land.
And when you are producing that much Greek yogurt, you have to do something with it! Companies are even paying dairy-farmers to take whey and integrate it into their farm. One farmer mixes it with feed for his cows, combines it with manure in a giant pit for use as fertilizer, and even converts the gas from it to electricity. Scientists are looking at using it as an ingredient in baby formulas in the future.
The first thought I had when I heard about this issue was pigs, actually. In one of my favorite all time health and recipe book, Nourishing Traditions
by Sally Fallon Morrell, it is mentioned that traditionally a farmer's wife would use whey leftover from cheese and yogurt making to fatten up the pigs. So I was really interested to read the first comment on the Modern Farmer’s post from a pig farmer who still uses whey as an important food for his pigs. His name is Walter Jeffries and he owns Sugar Mountain Farms
, which specializes in pastured pigs.
He says, “This [referring to the whey problem] is not a problem at all. It is a good resource. We feed thousands of gallons a day of whey to our pastured pigs. I make a great deal of yogurt which is also good for them. The pasture and whey are most of their diet - we don't buy or feed commercial hog feeds / grain. The amino acids in the whey balances the pasture. The acidity of the whey is good for the pigs digestion, helps the pigs digest hay/grasses and makes their gut inhospitable to disease as well as improving the flora in their digestion, just like it does with humans. That's why we eat yogurt too. Whey is not a problem, it is a solution.”
I checked out his website and was impressed to find out that they are able to fatten a pig up in about the same about of time as typical commercial pig farms simply with pasture and dairy (mostly whey). Sometimes solutions to our problems can be as simple as looking back into history. Though, hearing about how well whey fattens pigs up does make me question using whey protein powder as a lean source of protein to lose weight!
In the end, perhaps using whey as food for pigs could provide a beneficial relationship for both pig farmers and the yogurt producers. I say, the more solutions you have for a problem, the better.
Update - Chobani responds to our article: "At Chobani, we are committed to being a good community partner. That includes finding responsible uses for whey, a natural byproduct of the process to create authentic strained Greek Yogurt. We are constantly exploring the best ideas and options for beneficial whey use. Right now, we choose to return whey to farmers, most of whom use it as a supplement to their livestock feed. Some is used as a land-applied fertilizer but only at farms that have nutrient management plans in place with the state environmental conservation agency. A small percentage is also sent to community digesters, where the whey is used to produce energy."