New-York-based yogurt company Chobani announced that it's been tapped by the USDA to "bring even more Greek yogurt to schoolchildren." That means more American children will have the option of swapping in yogurt for meat during lunchtime. Which is weird, considering Chobani is basically dessert.
In early 2013, the USDA introduced the pilot program in a number of schools. By 2014, greek yogurt was permanently introduced to the menu in several states, and now Chobani will be the official greek yogurt provider for all participating schools. Chobani did not disclose the amount of money it's pulling in from the deal, but it's safe to assume that a lot of money is on the line—Chobani earned $279,720 for that first, three-month, four-state pilot program.
New York Senator Charles Schumer announced the initial deal at the time, making no qualms about the fact it would mark a financial victory for his state:
"The USDA's pilot program will serve as an important first step in boosting nutrition for New York students, all while bolstering business for our dairy farmers and Greek yogurt producers alike… To put it simply, New York schools will soon be able to say they've 'Got Greek Yogurt.'"
"Five years after Chobani was launched, the company has reached a billion dollars in revenue: a growth rate more typical of a successful tech start-up than a food business. More than thirty per cent of the yogurt eaten in America is now Greek yogurt, and much of it is being made by Chobani… With Chobani, [founder and CEO Hamdi] Ulukaya has transformed a product with a distinctly ethnic identity into an entirely American product—and this kind of transformation is the most American story there is."
Greek yogurt has been touted for its health benefits. Greek yogurt has about double the amount of protein as non-strained yogurt, and this distinction earned it the USDA's meat-replacement moniker.
But dollars aside, there's something a little weird about swapping in yogurt for meat— especially considering the high sugar content of Chobani. The New Yorker profile points out:
"There are between thirteen and eighteen grams of protein in each Chobani cup, and little or no fat—a selling point at a moment when high-protein diets have achieved widespread popularity. Nevertheless, Chobani is as dessert-like as its mass-market predecessors: there are twenty grams of sugar in a six-ounce container of blueberry, its most popular flavor; some of the sweetness derives from the fruit and milk solids, but much of it is from cane sugar."
Chobani yogurt is an outlier in the meat alternatives listed by the USDA, which includes eggs, lentils, peas, cheese, peanuts and several varieties of beans. The yogurt options on the list are: nonfat vanilla and plain (in tubs) and nonfat vanilla, blueberry, and strawberry, in cups.
A spokesperson for the USDA explained that there are calorie caps on overall meals served at US schools, so each institution that orders sweet yogurt instead of meat will have to take that into account. The representative added that often, products are modified for schools — the yogurt we see on the shelf may not be the same as the one served in schools — but didn't know whether that was the case for Chobani (per Chobani, it's not). In an email to Fusion, a Chobani representative said that the company will be offering 4-ounce cups of nonfat strawberry, blueberry, and vanilla, as well as tubs of vanilla to students.
In a statement emailed to Fusion, Dr. Robert Post, senior director of nutrition and regulatory affairs at Chobani said: "Chobani offers a total package of nutritional benefits, including an excellent source of high-quality, natural protein and a good source of calcium for healthy bones. We use only natural, non-GMO ingredients and have never used artificial flavors or preservatives in our products."
On sugar, he added: "the sugar in our food comes from a few sources: the milk and fruit in our yogurt and a touch of evaporated cane juice. As parents and school nutrition directors know, and as experts such as the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledge, sometimes a little sugar can go a long way when it comes to eating nutrient-intense foods."
According to the Chobani website, one 5.3 ounce cup of strawberry nonfat yogurt has 15 grams of sugar — that amounts to 11.25 grams of sugar per 4-ounce serving. The American Heart Association says children aged 4-8 should consume about 12.5 grams of sugar per day. Then again, the USDA did call ketchup a vegetable and pizza a vegetable vehicle — and school lunch meat doesn't have a stellar record — so this might be a step up.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.