By Samuel Aslaner
Walking around the Yale campus, it’s hard to miss the presence of yogurt, from the convenient to-go packs at Durfee’s to its frozen counterpart at Froyo World on HighStreet. The ubiquity of this ancient Mediterranean food staple on the shelves of every supermarket would be unthinkable for the first primitive farmers of this bacterially fermented dairy product. It is found in countless forms appealing to all demographics within American society, from the Dannon yogurt drinks to the neon blue Go-Gurts found in school lunches. But where does it come from and what caused this ever expanding industry to spur a Western yogurt epidemic?
Biblical in origin, yogurt served the needs of the wandering Israelites in the deserts of the Near East. Initially created to prolong the life of milk, traveling shepherds could ingest the fermented substance for extended periods of time. How could a food fit for nomads struggling to survive invade our culture with such ferocity? It all started in 1919 with the young Spanish Jewish entrepreneur, Isaac Carasso who began supplying the European continent with yogurt under the business name “Danone.” The Carasso family had lived in Salonika, Greece for four hundred years under the protection of the religiously tolerant Ottoman Empire and had been exposed to the local dairy products for generations. In 1942, his son, Daniel, immigrated to the U.S. and founded a yogurt shop in the Bronx, called Dannon. The initially exotic cuisine was received with mixed approval. The Times in that same year published an article that attempted to explain the mysterious new food. “It could be eaten with salted crackers and a green salad, spooned over steamed rice or boiled vegetables, or mixed with strawberry jam and spread on wheat bread.” Unsurprisingly, it remained on the culinary fringes until it became ‘Americanized,’ or filled with sugar.
Dannon began introducing various flavors in the 1950s, and the introduction of Swiss style yogurt mixed with fruit allowed the product to appeal to the masses. By the 1980s, yogurt became a strange anomaly that marketed itself as both a health food and dairy dessert discovering a variety of consumer bases. However, the American yogurt market never ceased to expand. According to the New Yorker journalist, Rebecca Mead, “by 2005 the average American was eating about ten pints of yogurt a year, five times the consumption of 1980.” How during the age of the tech boom could a dairy product expand at a rate similar to the growth of Apple, Twitter and Facebook? Much like how the original personal computer has grown into today’s modern desktop, American yogurt varies drastically from its original Mediterranean counterpart. When talking to a Turkish freshman in Calhoun, he said he was confused as to what the pink pudding-like substance was on the breakfast buffet line, and he was amazed to learn that it was a form of American yogurt. Although clearly an American style food, much credit to the growth of the yogurt industry can go to the marketing of a unique type of strained yogurt, commonly referred to as Greek yogurt.
Straining yogurt has been a common practice in regions all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean for centuries, but during the early 2000s the term for the specific yogurt became synonymous with the preceding adjective, Greek. One would assume that this is the product of clairvoyant Greek marketing; however, it was the doing of a Turkish-Kurdish small dairy business owner in upstate New York. In 2005 Hamdi Ulukaya began marketing his yogurt as Greek, but used the word Chobani, the Turkish word for shepherd. “Five years after the company was launched, the company reached a billion dollars in revenue.” Ulukaya’s unique marketing abilities successfully combined a distinctive ethnic food with mainstream American culture, and as of today, Greek yogurt constitutes over 30% of all yogurt consumption nationwide. This boost in Greek yogurt, strained of most or all of its fat, is in part due to the rise in high protein, low-fat diets in America. As American consumers continue to push for more Greek yogurt, it seems that it may now be more lucrative for Yale students to create yogurt startups rather than tech startups. So when you buy your next protein and flavor packed Greek Chobani, hopefully you can now taste its long and arduous journey spanning centuries and continents, but also contemplate whether innovative American yogurt might be a better description for the snack.
Sam Aslaner ’19 is an undergraduate in Calhoun College. Sam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.