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Yogurt is milk cultured with bacteria. Greek yogurt is milk cultured with bacteria and transformed, through a combination of circumstances, into an American obsession.
Yogurt is an ancient food, probably invented in the Middle East as much as 7,000 years ago. It almost certainly came into being accidentally: Milk from goats or sheep, left in an open container, soured and grew viscous, thanks to the action of various bacteria in the air. Somebody tried the results and decided that it didn't taste bad. People started making it deliberately and refined the process.
Today, under conditions that are presumably considerably more hygienic than those of the Neolithic era, yogurt, almost always based on cows' milk, is cultured primarily with two specific bacteria, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, then frequently dosed with sugar and salt and flavored with everything from cherry or strawberry preserves to Key lime pie, chocolate mousse, or apple turnover.
The first commercially packaged yogurt was produced in Barcelona in 1919 by Isaac Carasso, a Sephardic emigrant from Salonika, in Greek Macedonia; he called his company Danone, a version of his son Daniel's Catalan nickname, Danon. A decade later, an Armenian couple, the Colombosians, introduced packaged yogurt to America, through their Colombo & Sons Creamery in Massachusetts. A Czech dairy patented yogurt with fruit jam added in 1933, and fruit-enhanced yogurt made its American debut in 1947, courtesy of Isaac Carasso's company — renamed Dannon for the U.S. market. (The original "Danone", Daniel Carasso, died in May of 2009, at the age of 103 — a tribute to yogurt's salutary properties?)
Yogurt has long been an important part of various cuisines throughout the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean, and Central and South Asia, eaten primarily as a condiment or used in cooking. (Among other things, it is an effective marinade and a gentle meat tenderizer; it's essential, for instance, for the pre-preparation of tandoori chicken.) In the United States, though we sometimes eat yogurt as a snack or as dessert (frozen or otherwise), it is above all eaten for breakfast — spooned directly out of the carton, mixed with granola and/or fresh fruit, or dolloped into smoothies. And increasingly, the yogurt we consume in one of those fashions is "Greek." Ten years ago, the category accounted for one or two percent of the total American yogurt market; today it's somewhere between 35 and 50 percent, and growing.
Isaac Carasso's Greek origins aside, the yogurt he and his successors produced wasn't what we'd call "Greek" at all. It was the thinnish "regular" variety. Greek yogurt in the modern sense is basically strained yogurt, yogurt concentrated in flavor and texture by the removal of most of its liquid, or whey. You can strain yogurt yourself by spooning it into cheesecloth and suspending the bundle over a bowl. The whey will slowly drip out, leaving something rich and thick behind. Of course, that's not how it's made commercially. Some producers simply thicken regular yogurt with additives. Others concentrate the milk through filtration before the cultures are added. The most common method, though, is to produce the yogurt and then "strain" it with a centrifuge.
The Greeks don't call their thick yogurt "Greek" (logically enough, they call it "strained" — strangistó), and they're less likely to eat it for breakfast than to serve it as dessert, with fruit preserves or honey added, or to use it as the basis for the ubiquitous condiment called tzatziki, with cucumbers, garlic, and herbs stirred in. In any case, the Greek yogurt we eat in America isn't really Greek at all. First of all, it is made here, not in Greece. (In the U.K., only yogurts actually made in that country may be called "Greek" — otherwise, they must be labeled "Greek-style" — but the U.S. government doesn't regulate the term.) More to the point, it was popularized in this country by a Turkish Kurd.
TV chef Graham Kerr — "The Galloping Gourmet" — touted strained yogurt on his show as early as 1990, long before anyone had heard of Greek yogurt, but it wasn't until 2001 that the first commercial strained yogurt appeared on American shelves. The brand, which actually did come from Greece, was FAGE (pronounced "FA-yeh"). FAGE is an acronym for Filippou Adelphoi Galaktokomikes Epicheiriseis, or Filippou Brothers Dairy Company — but coincidentally fage is also a Greek imperative verb meaning "Eat!" (the equivalent of the Italian "Mangia!"). FAGE had been in the yogurt business since 1954, but it was only after technological innovations in the 1970s improved shelf stability of their products that they began exporting it.
The yogurt FAGE first sold in the U.S. was labeled Total, and the term "Greek yogurt" was nowhere to be found on the packaging. That language was introduced to American consumers by one Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish-born Kurdish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1996, supposedly with no more than $3,000 to his name.
After learning English and taking some business classes, Ulukaya opened a small feta cheese factory in New York State. The enterprise was a modest success — but he remembered his mother making yogurt at home when he was a child, and, as he always tells interviewers, he loves the stuff, so he decided to get into that business, too. In 2005, he bought a former Kraft Foods dairy factory in South Edmeston, New York, southeast of Syracuse. Two years later, he debuted his Chobani brand yogurt, the name deriving from the Turkish çhoban, meaning shepherd (yogurt in Ulukaya's part of the world was traditionally made from sheep’s milk).
Though his inspiration was Turkish, he dubbed his product "Greek" — a name more resonantly Mediterranean to the American consumer. "It doesn't matter whether it's Greek yogurt or Turkish yogurt," Ulukaya later said, "as long as it's a good yogurt."
Today, Chobani is by far the largest producer of Greek yogurt, and the company is valued at over $1 billion. (Ulukaya has also earned praise — and, from some quarters, opprobrium — for his enlightened social policies: hiring immigrants from relocation centers, offering employees a 10 percent share in the company, granting six weeks of parental leave to both new mothers and new fathers.)
Why do we like Greek yogurt so much? Maybe it has something to do with that geographical adjective, which evokes sun-drenched islands and simple, savory food. A recent New York Times business story, on the other hand, attributed the success of Chobani in particular to the sense of "authenticity" suggested by the company's back story — immigrant from Turkey, $3,000 in his pocket, memories of his mother's kitchen, billion-buck success…
Some people, undoubtedly, choose Greek yogurt for its perceived health benefits: It is typically very slightly lower in calories than regular yogurt and substantially lower in sodium, sugars, and carbohydrates, but higher in protein. (On the other hand, it contains roughly half the calcium and potassium of the ordinary variety.) Others probably prefer it simply because it's thicker and creamier than its regular counterparts, and thus tends to be more satisfying.
Whatever the reasons, Greek yogurt is big business today, and not just for Chobani. Other major brands in the U.S., besides FAGE, include Voskos, Cabot Creamery, and Oikos — which is made by Groupe Danone in its regular form and by Stonyfield Farm, formerly owned by Danone, as an organic product. Yoplait, which is owned jointly by General Mills and the French company Sodiaal and is the largest international yogurt brand overall, has made several attempts to enter the Greek yogurt market, but recently announced that they were rolling out a French-style yogurt instead.
Chobani, meanwhile, is hedging its bets: It has recently started making a non-Greek yogurt called Chobani Smooth Classic Yogurt (emphasis Chobani's), boasting less sugar and more protein than other regular yogurts.