Greek yogurt: What's next?

by Donna Berry
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Greek yogurt products continue to stir interest in the refrigerated dairy case and in recent months have generated buzz in other departments throughout the grocery store, most notably the snack food aisle and the frozen dessert section. Greek yogurt products are even making a name in food service, not only as a cultured dairy product that is used in fruit parfaits and as soft-serve, but also as a cooking ingredient and condiment.

Yogurt, as it is made in Greece, relies on whole milk from either sheep or cows. It is cultured using traditional yogurt cultures — Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus — with or without the addition of other lactobacilli or bifidobacterium, with the latter functioning as probiotics.

The fermented milk achieves its thick, creamy texture and mouthfeel as a result of the straining process it goes through, whereby excess mois-ture is filtered, resulting in a concentrated solids product. Traditional plain yogurt from Greece is simply whole milk and cultures.

“I have never been to Greece, but I understand that they don’t refer to their own products as ‘Greek,’” said Doug Allen, director of business development-stabilizer sys-tems, Denali Ingredients, New Berlin, Wis. “That said, a true Greek yogurt, in my opinion, is defined by texture more than anything. It should be creamy and very rich — more like a dessert than a traditional yogurt. Protein levels are a key defining attribute and should be at 12 grams or more per serving.”
Indeed, the term “Greek yogurt” does not have a standard of identity.

“In the Balkan region, this type of yogurt is traditionally made by straining fermented full-fat milk,” said Mirjana Curic-Bawden, senior scientist, application manager-fermented milk and probiotics for Chr. Hansen Inc., Milwaukee. “So it is high in protein and high in fat, which translates to being creamy and smooth, not too acidic, and carries a fresh, acetaldehyde-type flavor. In the states, Fage Total, Liberte Mediterranee and full-fat versions of Greek Gods are the most similar to traditional Greek yogurts.”

Marja Kanning, project manager and dairy expert with NIZO Food Research B.V., The Netherlands, concurred, “Yogurt from Greece contains a higher percentage of protein and fat. In the states, the tendency is to remove or reduce the fat content of the milk. Thus, U.S.-made yogurts designed to resemble original Greek yogurt should be clean label and have a creamy, thick mouthfeel and taste.”
This may be achieved through modifications in processing.

“To maintain the texture and creamy characteristics of Greek yogurt, it is possible to modify proteins along with the straining step in order to create a creaminess and thickness that resembles a whole milk product,” Ms. Kanning said.

After all, as Ms. Curic-Bawden pointed out, “Let’s be honest. Having a product with high protein and no or low fat are what appeal to Americans. If all the Greek yogurts in the U.S. market were traditional, full-fat products, the category probably would not have become so popular among the health-conscious crowd. High fat tastes good, but we all count calories, don’t we?”

American assimilation begins
“I believe most of the major brands that are making a strained yogurt are producing a very good Greek yogurt product,” Mr. Allen said. “There are some attributes that have been designed to meet the preferences and buying habits of the U.S. customer, such as reduced-fat levels and interesting fruit flavor combinations that certainly wouldn’t be native to Greece.”

Some U.S. yogurt manu-facturers, anxious to hop on the Greek yogurt bandwagon, produce what is best described as Greek-style yogurt. Rather than keeping the recipe simple and modifying the process to deliver the milk protein, they will add solids to the product. This may be accomplished using a standard cup-set manufacturing process, and thus does not include the additional “Greek” straining step, which requires capital investment and is also time consuming.

“There are products in the market that are made using a mainstream, non-strained process,” Mr. Allen said. “Most are not very good. It is a formulation challenge to boost the protein level and still have the same texture and mouthfeel as ‘the real Greek thing.’

“Consumers are starting to establish a set of expectations on the quality of the products that they will accept as Greek yogurt, this includes the actual product as well as products said to be ‘made with Greek yogurt.’”

Recent roll outs
Market saturation may be a challenge for manufacturers interested in entering the Greek yogurt category, Ms. Curic-Bawden said.

“Almost every yogurt maker, in-cluding private label players, has a Greek yogurt brand,” she said. “Consumers have a chance to look for and find their preference. The market will likely balance itself; some brands will disappear, like Athenos, and some brands will grow.”

In reference to Athenos, Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., after being out of the yogurt business since December 2004 when it sold the Breyers brand, re-entered the business with Athenos-branded dual-compartment yogurt. Kraft then exited the category in March 2012, stating that even though the brand had a loyal following, the company decided to refocus its efforts on innovating other new products under the Athenos brand.

This suggests Greek yogurt has loyal consumers, but maybe, as Ms. Curic-Bawden suggested, it is leveling. And, there are some folks who like it and others, for various reasons, are not interested.
“I do not expect other yogurt categories to disappear,” Ms. Curic-Bawden said. “Change and adjust, but not disappear. There is still a large consumer base that does not like, does not need or cannot afford the price of Greek yogurt products.”

Beyond the yogurt aisle
Still, Greek yogurt has even caught the attention of culinary professionals who recognize the value of stating “made with Greek yogurt” on menus.

“Greek yogurt is an excellent alternative to sour cream, as it can be used for salads, cooking and dips,” Ms. Curic-Bawden said. “But, similar to other trendy food, we see that the term Greek yogurt is starting to be used on foods that have nothing to do with high-protein yogurt containing live and active cultures.”

For example, Tropical Nut & Fruit Co., Orlando, Fla., now offers Greek Yogurt Covered Pretzels, and Fairfield, N.J.-based Rickland Orchards recently launched its Greek Yogurt Bar. The latter is based on honey-roasted granola and fruit, and sports a glaze made with strained Greek yogurt imported from Europe, according to the company.

In the retail freezer, Inventure Foods Inc., Phoenix, expanded its Jamba smoothies line with a pair of superfruit formulations featuring nonfat Greek yogurt. Pomegranate Pick-Me-Up and Acai Super-Antioxidant come in 8-oz bags and, when added to juice in a blender, yield two 8-oz frozen smoothies.
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based Unilever now offers Ben & Jerry’s Greek Frozen Yogurt in four varieties: vanilla, peanut butter banana, raspberry fudge and strawberry shortcake.

Back in the refrigerated dairy case, Karoun Dairies Inc., Turlock, Calif., and Wallaby Yogurt Co., Napa Valley, Calif., with roots in Middle Eastern and Australian dairy products, respectively, recently entered the Greek yogurt product category. Karoun’s is a Greek-style product flavored with honey. Wallaby’s is strained and is made using a slow-cooking method. Wallaby Organic Greek Lowfat Yogurt comes in a variety of flavors and forms, including a dual-compartment cup that allows consumers to con-trol the amount of flavor — blueberries, cherries, honey or strawberries — they get with each spoonful.

“Initially, there was some hesitation when it came to launching a Greek yogurt,” said Jerry Chou, founder and president of Wallaby. “The style and method of manufacturing Greek yogurt is very different from our signature product line. But as we started to realize how delicious Greek yogurt can be, it became clear that this was the direction we wanted to go in.”

Kronos Foods Inc., Glendale Heights, Ill., a manufacturer of gyros and other Mediterranean and specialty foods, is intro-ducing Kamari by Kronos Greek Yogurt Dip. The 24-oz tub line comes in four varieties: blue cheese and cranberry; roasted red pepper and feta cheese; spinach, artichoke and feta; and sweet potato, brown sugar and cinnamon.

Ms. Curic-Bawden said the clean, simple concept of Greek yogurt products has been positive for the yogurt industry.

“It’s sort of a ‘back to the roots of real yogurt,’” she said.

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