Thicker, tangier version of yogurt takes over the dairy case

kpurvis@charlotteobserver.comJuly 25, 2012 

  • Tangs a lot Who would have guessed that Americans, with our taste for sweet things, would fall for something as tangy as Greek yogurt? Lee Christie Stapleton did. Stapleton is with Spectrum Discovery Center in Kannapolis, a consulting company that specializes in sensory evaluations of products. “Most people are not eating plain yogurt,” she says. “Even if they’re buying plain, they’re pairing it with something sweet. Humans have a long tradition of putting sour things or tangy things with sweet things.” However, Stapleton thinks what has made Greek yogurt so successful isn’t the taste – it’s the texture. “It has a texture that’s a lot like sour cream,” she says. “It feels indulgent, but also feels healthy.” When Greek-style yogurts first came on the market, a lot of them had a grainy or chalky texture. Getting rid of that was a key to the success. “With the successful ones like Chobani and Fage, it really is like sour cream. And people like that texture quite a lot.” Kathleen Purvis
  • What’s Chobani doing here? It seems fitting that the worldwide sales office of Chobani is next door to the financial tracking firm Dun & Bradstreet, on the 16th floor of the Charlotte Plaza on South College Street. Chobani’s sales have taken off so fast, the office still has tape outlines on the floor where they haven’t had time to install all the furniture. “If we didn’t sell any more than we’re selling now, we’re north of a billion-dollar brand,” says Kyle O’Brien, vice president of sales for 5-year-old Chobani. “Innovation will make it a $5 billion brand. We think it’s a $12 billion market.” Why is Chobani’s sales office in Charlotte when the product is made in upstate New York? Easy answer: O’Brien is from Charlotte. At the very beginning of Chobani around 2005, “before there was a cup or a label,” a friend introduced sales expert O’Brien to Turkish businessman Hamdi Ulukaya, who had been making feta cheese for the American market. The story is that Ulukaya was flipping through his mail one day when he saw a sales flyer for a yogurt plant that Kraft was shutting down in New York. He threw the flyer away. But then he started thinking about American yogurt – thin, bland and often loaded with sweeteners – and the strained yogurt his family made in Turkey from just milk and bacterial cultures. He pulled the flyer from the trash and wondered if America was ready for better yogurt. When O’Brien met Ulukaya, he realized that what Ulukaya wanted to make was something he wanted to sell. “It’s what we were given naturally to keep our bodies healthy,” he says. “It’s thousands of years old.” Kathleen Purvis
  • Herbed Greek Yogurt Salad Dressing From 1 cup low-fat plain Greek yogurt 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice 1 small clove garlic, minced 2 tablespoons chopped chives 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste WHISK together all the ingredients. Refrigerate until ready to use. Toss a little dressing with a green salad. Can be made up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated. Yield: About 1 1/2 cups.
  • Greek Yogurt Cake and Glaze This incredibly easy – and delicious – cake has been making the rounds online recently. Make it with any flavor mix, from devil’s food to yellow cake. You also can use flavored Greek yogurts in the cake or glaze. Nonstick cooking spray 1 box moist-style cake mix, any flavor 1 cup fat-free or reduced-fat Greek yogurt, plain or a flavor that matches your cake mix 1 cup water Glaze: 1/2 cup plain or fruit-flavored low-fat or nonfat Greek yogurt 1/4 cup cream cheese, room temperature 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 cups confectioner’s sugar SPRAY a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with cooking spray. (You also can make cupcakes or round cake layers. Line cupcake tins with paper liners and spray them for cupcakes.) PREHEAT oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the cake mix, yogurt and water. Spread in the prepare pan or pans. BAKE for the amount of time specified on the box for the pan size. Start checking for doneness about 5 minutes early. Remove from oven and let stand on a rack until completely cool. GLAZE: Beat the yogurt, cream cheese and vanilla with an electric mixer. Sift in the confectioner’s sugar and beat until smooth. Spoon over the cake. (Glaze will be thin.)
  • Greek Yogurt Roast Chicken Yogurt is a natural tenderizer, particularly with chicken or turkey. 1 cup nonfat or reduced-fat plain Greek yogurt 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard 2 cloves garlic, minced 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 1 chicken, cut up, or 4 to 6 leg-thigh quarters COMBINE the yogurt, mustard, garlic, salt and lemon juice. Place in a bowl or 1-gallon resealable plastic bag. Add the chicken and rub all over with the yogurt mixture. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 12 hours. PREHEAT oven to 375 degrees. Remove chicken from yogurt, scraping off the excess with your hand. Spray a baking sheet or roasting pan with cooking spray. PLACE the chicken on the baking sheet or pan, skin side up. Place in oven and roast about 45 minutes, until juices run clear and a thermometer in the thickest part of a thigh registers 165 degrees. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

There is one Greek financial success story this year. It comes in a cup with flavors like honey and pomegranate mixed in.

If you’re one of the few people who isn’t already in love with it, Greek yogurt is as thick as sour cream and has a flavor so distinctively tangy, you can feel your taste buds standing up at attention.

Its sales figures make financial types stand at attention, too. Only seven years or so since it started showing up in American stores, annual sales of Greek yogurt have passed the $5 billion mark and are still climbing. Chobani is now the third largest yogurt company in the world, behind Dannon and Yoplait.

And it’s not just taking over the dairy section, where the Greek yogurt displays have grown to cover an entire wall of flavors. It’s in the ice cream coolers as frozen Greek yogurt and in the baby food aisle, too.

The really crazy thing in the Greek yogurt story? It’s not actually Greek. But we’ll get to that.

Rich in nutrients

Is Greek yogurt really that good for you? All yogurt is mostly good for you, says registered dietitian Laura Buxenbaum of Greensboro, a nutritionist for the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association.

“It’s a product I’ve always recommended,” she says. “You want to make sure you’re using the plain, nonfat or low-fat version. Whether it’s Greek or regular yogurt, they’re both low-calorie and nutrient-rich foods. Those probiotics” – the bacteria that make milk into yogurt – “help digestion and boost your immunity.”

What makes Greek yogurt different and gives it an edge in nutrition is the straining. To make it, you start with just milk. It’s pasteurized at the factory and the cream is removed, then bacteria is added, which converts the lactose into lactic acid. The result is yogurt.

Then, to make it Greek yogurt, you strain out the whey. What remains is a yogurt that’s almost twice as high in protein and has half the amount of carbohydrates. It’s also lower in sodium.

The downside: It’s slightly lower in calcium – 20 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance for a serving of Greek yogurt vs. 30 percent for regular yogurt – and a bit higher in calories.

It’s also more expensive. Because it takes 3 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of strained yogurt, Greek yogurt can cost up to three times as much.

You do need to read those labels carefully. Because Greek yogurt has gotten so popular so quickly, there is no federal standard of identity, says Kyle O’Brien, the Charlotte-based vice president of sales for Chobani. Some companies have started taking a short cut by using starches and thickeners.

“You could put macaroni and cheese in a cup and call it Greek yogurt,” he says. “Here’s what’s supposed to be in it. Milk, cultures and fruit. That’s it.”

How it got its name

What is popularly called Greek yogurt actually isn’t Greek. Or, at least, it isn’t only Greek. Many cultures, from Lebanon to Turkey, strain yogurt to make it thicker and richer. In different areas of the world, what Americans know as Greek yogurt may be labeled Turkish yogurt or Lebanese yogurt.

Calling the product Greek yogurt started with the Greek-owned company Fage (pronounced fah-YAY), maker of Total Greek yogurt. The name stuck in the American market because of the popularity and perceived healthfulness of Mediterranean diets.

Greek-style yogurt actually has been around for thousands of years, though, sometimes known as labneh. During the natural foods craze in the 1970s, it was popular to line a strainer with a coffee filter to make yogurt cheese. Guess what that was?

One reason to strain yogurt is to make it easier to use in cooking. Removing liquid makes it stable, so it doesn’t curdle as easily as sour cream or regular yogurt does over heat, says Nicki Briggs, Chobani’s vice president of corporate communications, who’s also a nutritionist.

“It’s such a versatile ingredient,” she says. “I don’t think consumers in the U.S. are used to cooking with it. In other countries, Greek yogurt is something you cook with, not something you consume.”

It can act as an emulsifier, pulling together oil and vinegar in a dressing the same way mustard does. In baking, you can use it to reduce the amount of fat in cakes. In sauces, it can replace cream.

By turning lactose into lactic acid, Greek yogurt also makes a great tenderizer.

That natural acidity also adds a flavor note to recipes, in the same way that chefs often suggest adding an acid to a dish to highlight the other flavors.

“It adds depth to recipes,” says Briggs. “It gives a recipe some life.”

Purvis: 704-358-5236

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