What Real Yogurt Looks Like

I’m sure that any of our long-term customers have seen our yogurt look like this:

The photograph does not make things very clear, but there’s a thin layer of liquid whey sitting on top of the yogurt and pooled in pockets on the sides. If you saw yogurt like this on the shelf, did it give you pause, and make you wonder what was going on at the creamery? Have no fear–it’s actually a sign of our yogurt’s authenticity and purity.

Though it usually looks like one big blob, whole milk yogurt actually consists of both solid and liquid parts. The liquid part of yogurt is called whey, and it is yellow or yellow-green in color. Most people encounter whey when they return to a jar of whole milk yogurt that has already had a spoonful taken out: the hole made by the spoon will often be partially or completely filled with whey. Yogurt’s solid part is the curd, which is white. When your yogurt looks like one solid mass, the curd is retaining the whey, suspending it within its structure.

In the jar of yogurt above, the yogurt curd has released some whey without ever having been touched by a spoon. This is a sign of a weak curd, which slumps down, releasing more whey from its “grip”, and the released whey shows up on the sides or top of the jar. Is weak curd bad? Not really. Weak curd is caused by lower levels of milk solids in the milk, often due to changes in the cow’s diet. The nutrition facts on the side of the jar would change slightly, but the yogurt would still taste great. If whey on top is a problem, it’s a purely aesthetic one.

Stonyfield and many other large-scale yogurt makers add things to their yogurt to avoid ever having to worry about these aesthetic issues. Organic apple pectin is on the ingredients list for some of Stonyfield’s many varieties, and an article in Bloomberg News from 2006 reported on the company’s plans to import powdered organic milk from all the way in New Zealand (http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2006-10-15/the-organic-myth). (This latter decision was probably at least as much profit-based as it was firmness-based.) A few years ago, Stonyfield put an end to “cream on top,” homogenizing their yogurt even further.

As a business owner, I can understand the rationale behind the decision to lace yogurt with additives. It’s hard to beat powdered milk’s low price and infinite shelf life, though it is almost always imported, and there’s even research that shows that the oxidized cholesterol that develops as milk is “powdered” may be bad for us (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703471904576003333273942462.html). Pectin is cheaper than milk, too, and it’s pretty innocuous, since it’s just apple pulp. Both pectin and milk powder are organic-compatible.

But Tide Mill Creamery will not be using either one of these additives, or any other. Ever!

But what grosses me out is that these yogurt producers have taken an essentially aesthetic problem (whey on top or whey on the sides) and dealt with it in ways that fundamentally alter the taste, nutritional value, and essential yogurt-ness of their product. The decision to add stabilizers and milk powder was motivated not by any consideration of yogurt flavor or quality, but by more corporate values like predictability and stability and ease of transport, and the assumption that American consumers won’t notice or won’t care what’s in the ingredients list.

Importing milk powder from across the world is also a shocking betrayal of American farmers, who are perfectly capable of producing quality organic milk and who are in some places lining up around the block for the chance to do so, or wishing that it was easier to make a living doing so. Stonyfield farms often references their start as dairy farmers, producing their own milk, but clearly this is a company that has forgotten where they came from. Or, rather, Stonyfield’s corporate owners (Danone) do not care where Stonyfield has come from.

All this augmentation of the yogurt is a betrayal of the cows, too. Milk solids vary with the seasons, as the cows’ diet changes. All these additives to “homogenize” the milk would probably hurt the cows’ feelings if they had any idea what we were doing.

Lastly, you can taste the difference. I have come to appreciate the tender, even juicy mouthfeel of real whole milk yogurt, and I think our whole milk yogurt customers have too. We certainly get enough yogurt love letters (one came in from New York City today) for me to feel like we’re on to something.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares our appreciation for “real yogurt”, and pectin and dry milk in Stonyfield are the most benign of a slew of additives that have found their way into what is generally accepted as yogurt. In 2008 the New York Times reported a lawsuit filed against Pinkberry’s so-called “all-natural” frozen yogurt, which listed 23 items on its ingredients list, including artificial flavors and colors, emulsifiers, and fillers, including water (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/dining/23yogurt.html?_r=0). NPR reported last year on the development of fake Greek yogurts that bypass the traditional Greek yogurt-making process and replace it with a variety of additives, ranging from cornstarch to milk protein concentrate, to mimic real yogurt’s flavor profile (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/07/19/156997600/high-tech-shortcut-to-greek-yogurt-leaves-purists-fuming). These faux yogurts can be sold on the shelf side-by-side with our products.

These additives are a betrayal of the craft and history of yogurt making and take advantage of consumers’ expectations. I would like to see the FDA change yogurt’s “standard of identity” to prohibit the use of thickeners, stabilizers, and fillers (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2006-title21-vol2/pdf/CFR-2006-title21-vol2-sec131-200.pdf).

Next time you see whey on top or on the sides of one of our proudly glass-jarred yogurts, or someone else’s, see it as a sign of the yogurt-maker’s commitment to giving you real yogurt. The fact of the matter is that the level of milk solids fluctuates with the season, just like the flavor of the milk fluctuates with the season, because our cows fluctuate with the season, and yogurt that doesn’t fluctuate with the season is not the kind of yogurt that we want to eat or make!

In a few days the cows are heading out to pasture, and as they transition to fresh grass the milk solids in the milk will increase, naturally, and the yogurt will firm up. I think.

Further reading:




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