The mystery of Greek yogurt's sudden ubiquity isn't much of a mystery to me, as I glance from my computer to the recently discarded FAGE carton in my trash can. I know I'm not alone. Greek yogurt is a $1.5 billion business in the U.S. Indeed, asking why Americans enjoy a pleasantly sweet and sourish yogurt with an avocado's consistency and health benefits to boot seems to be an exercise in answering your own question.
The mystery isn't "why greek yogurt," but why now? Just five years ago, Greek yogurt was a $60 million market in the U.S. (Too sour! Too thick!) But sales have increased 2500%, accelerating through the Great Recession despite the fact that the "Greek" stuff (it's actually more Lebanese, but anyway) tends to be twice as expensive as normal yogurt. Still the two leading brands--Chobani and Fage--now account for nearly a seventh of the market, Margy Slattery reported this month for The New Republic. Greek yogurt sales have increased from 0.7% of the total industry in 2006 to 19% today.
NPR catches up to Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani yogurt, and a descendant of a long line of dairy farmers in Turkey, who bought a Kraft Foods plant in upstate New York. Today Chobani is the number one seller of Greek yogurt in the country, with nearly 50% market share. "So far," Hansi Lo Wang writes, "Chobani and the Greek dairy company Fage are leading the pack of best-selling Greek yogurt brands, and conventional yogurt giants like Yoplait, owned by General Mills, and Dannon are now trying to play catch-up."
American tastes are too complex to diagnose conclusively, but analysts think the ascendance of Greek yogurt is a case of conspicuous consumption (literally) led by women in the workplace. One theory holds that rich old women in affluent coastal cities are leading the trend that's making Greek yogurt an aspirational product -- So foreign! So classy! -- even if the health benefits are dubious:
The rise of Greek yogurt in the U.S. reflects a larger change in the American culinary consciousness: a desire for foods that are considered purer, simpler, and more natural--in other words, not yogurts purporting to taste like key lime pie or strawberry cheesecake.
I want to suggest another idea. The opposite idea. Perhaps people are buying Greek yogurt, not despite the fact that it's expensive compared to yogurts, but because it's cheap compared to similarly filling foods. The taste of Greek yogurt is thick, like scooping avocado out of its skin. Sometimes I eat it for breakfast. I couldn't eat fruit-on-the-bottom Dannon yogurt for breakfast, because that stuff can have the consistency of melted ice cream and after I eat a cup, I feel like I've had a big glass of water, not a snack.
So here's a corollary to the conspicuous consumption theory. I don't doubt that many people eat Greek yogurt to feel, and project, a sense of cosmopolitanism. But I wonder if other middle-to-upper-middle class people fell for Greek yogurt as a cheaper solution for breakfast or a big snack, rather than an expensive solution for yogurt.
Update: Fast Company's Nancy Miller tweets her theory: "The Greek stuff started selling at Trader Joe's with honey portion you could control. It's bfast/ dessert for women."
Update 2: Why does Greek yogurt taste like that, anyway? That sweet-sourness, that avocado texture. Atlantic food critic extraordinaire Corby Kummer explains how it's made. Via email, he also passes along a fun piece about the family that started Fage, to whom I'd like to say, from across the ethers: Thank you for another delicious breakfast!