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Greek Yogurt Purists Call Foul On Short Cut Thickening Agents

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Greek yogurt traditionalists are fuming over new methods to produce its characteristic thick texture, which they believe violate the product's "standard of identity."

NPR spoke with Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of the successful seven-year-old company Chobani. Ulukaya is critical of companies that employ short cuts in making Greek yogurt, which is usually strained to remove excess liquid to produce a thick and creamy product:

"We want to make yogurt the way it was meant to be," he says. His yogurt, he says, is exactly the same as what his mother made by hand back home in Turkey. ...

But Chobani's Ulukaya calls such products cheap imitations. "That ruins the expectation in the consumer's mind of how pure and simple this product is."

Specifically, Ulukaya takes issue with thickening agents some companies use to achieve the same taste and texture as Greek yogurt. NPR also spoke with food scientist Erhan Yildiz, who developed an ingredient that can be added to regular yogurt to imitate things like "residual mouth coating," "meltaway" and "jiggle."

Yildiz doesn't see anything wrong with such practices, which provide a more cost-effective alternative to the expensive straining machines used by Ulukaya and other traditionalists.

Greek yogurt has seen a boom in popularity in recent years, with companies like Ben and Jerry's, Quaker and General Mills offering Greek yogurt or Greek yogurt-inspired items. The Star Tribune figures the U.S. yogurt business to be worth a staggering $5 billion.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Greek yogurt now represents 28 percent of U.S. yogurt. That number was at 16 percent last year and three percent three years ago. It's estimated to increase to 40 percent over the next year and 120 percent over the next five.

Chobani is doing wildly successfully, and one has to wonder if its adherence to traditional methods is to thank. Business Insider tells us the company is the largest producer of Greek yogurt in the U.S. Ulukaya, now 40 years old, ran a comparatively small cheese company in New York state before founding Chobani.

Ulukaya's concern, however, seems to be shared with others. General Mills, which produces yogurt brand Yoplait, is the target of a new lawsuit that alleges its Greek yogurt product isn't actually Greek or yogurt. The suit, filed by a Chicago resident, points at General Mills' use of a thickener called "milk protein concentrate," which is made by filtering skim milk to remove non-protein elements.

NPR notes that the Food and Drug administration established a "standard of identity" for yogurt about 30 years ago, and a 1981 version of the measure did not allow the use of thickening agents. That section was "stayed" when the industry protested.

But while General Mills sweats, Chobani Yogurt this month received a $1.5 million grant from New York State to expand. Times Union reports that the company is planning a $88.5 million expansion, which involves acquiring 100 acres next to the present facility and building an 80,000-square-foot addition. The company plans to add 450 new full-time jobs. Chobani buys 25 million gallons of milk from local farmers a week and yields an estimated $300 million in economic impact yearly.

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