Where Greek yogurt comes from

From my apartment in Brooklyn, a search for Greek yogurt available for delivery from Whole Foods comes up with more than 350 results. Some are nonfat, others are flavored with fruit. More than a couple are “Aussie Greek,” and hundreds are organic or Icelandic or from upstate New York, lumped in with the Greek yogurt by an algorithm that treats “Greek yogurt” as a catch-all style rather than a location-dependent product.

And the algorithm is right. Greek yogurt isn’t a location-dependent product. It’s not even really Greek.

What Americans know as Greek yogurt is a yogurt with most of the whey strained out, making it thicker. In Greece, it’s called straggisto (which simply translates to strained yogurt). Fage, a company that started in Athens, Greece, was the first to put “Greek” on yogurt labels as a way to describe the product. However, Chobani, a company started in the United States by a man from Turkey, popularized the practice. (Fage unsuccessfully sued Chobani in the US for, among other things, branding itself as Greek in the 2010s.) All yogurt is Greek in Greece by default, though.

“Places in Greece sell yogurt and don’t need to call it Greek yogurt,” says Matt Barrett, the man behind Athens Guide. “The companies in the USA that sell what they call Greek yogurt are generally not Greek. One or two are Turkish and the rest are a mix of small dairy companies and large corporations.”

Actual Greek yogurt (as in, yogurt made and sold in Greece) can come from cows, sheep, or goats. It can be thick or thin. It is, simply, just as diverse a category as it is everywhere else. Still, when Americans visit Greece, they bring their perceptions of American Greek yogurt with them. Rachel Montague runs four tours through Athens Daily Food Tour and has met around 2,000 Americans through her work. On two of the tours, they serve Greek yogurt.

“This subject comes up on around 50 percent of our tours,” Montague says. “They want to know what makes it so different here than the yogurt they buy in the US and they also want to know why it is so thick.”

The answer is in the process. Greek yogurt is initially made the same way as other yogurt by heating milk and then adding a bacteria culture to kick-start fermentation, turning the liquid into a more solid goop. The next step is what separates the two. Greek yogurt is strained, leaving a thicker end product. Strained yogurt is made around the world, but Fage was the first to popularize it in the US. The company attached “Greek” to the name of its strained yogurt, and with the added publicity of Chobani doing the same, Americans came to associate all strained yogurts as one with “Greek” in the name.

Attaching a location to yogurt is an interesting trend for another reason: Yogurt is one of the most universal foods in the world. The word for yogurt comes from the Turkish word for coagulate or curdle, yoğurmak, according to an article in the journal Nutrition Reviews. Yogurt itself was likely invented independently in different parts of the world. Ayurvedic scripts from India mention a healthy yogurt product dating back to 6,000 BC, and yogurt has been made in Bulgaria since at least 2,000 BC. While it’s hard to be certain, yogurt was probably first invented by people who carried milk in bags made from animal intestines, which had just the right bacterial mix to curdle the milk and turn it into a longer-lasting dairy product.

When it comes to the Greeks, the first mention of yogurt was in 100 BC, the Nutrition Reviews article states, when an ancient Greek writer noted “the use of yogurt by barbarous nations.”

People ate naturally fermented yogurt around the world without knowing exactly how it was made until 1905. That year, a Bulgarian medical student named Stamen Grigorov discovered Lactobacillus bulgaricus, the bacteria that makes yogurt cultures (today, companies also commonly use Streptococcus thermophiles). Yogurt didn’t gain popularity in the US until the mid-1900s when Dannon brought yogurt making to the Bronx, according to NPR.

Regular yogurt walked so the Greek yogurt category could run. Today, yogurt branded as Greek yogurt account for $3.7 billion of the $7.17 billion US yogurt market. It has and likely always will be a large number that’s largely irrelevant for actual Greeks in Greece.

“In Greece, to call it Greek yogurt would be like saying ‘American hamburger’ in the USA or ‘British-style fish and chips’ in England,” Barrett says. Still, it’s not necessarily a negative. “Anything that makes people comfortable about traveling, like knowing they can get a food that they eat every day at home, is helpful.”

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