ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
America's food companies are masters of technology. They massage tastes and textures, to tickle our palates. Or they imitate expensive food with cheaper ingredients. So when is imitation not flattery, but an insult to the original product's good name?
Well, those questions are currently hanging over one of the most trendy foods in the country - Greek yogurt. NPR's Dan Charles explains.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The country's number one cheerleader for Greek yogurt, is actually an immigrant from Turkey named Hamdi Ulukaya. Seven years ago, Ulukaya founded the company Chobani. Today, it's America's biggest Greek yogurt maker - by far. And Ulukaya says the secret is simplicity itself. His yogurt, he says, is exactly the same as what his mother made by hand, back home in Turkey.
HAMDI ULUKAYA: We want to make yogurt as it was meant to be because it's simple, it's pure, it's tasty - it's beautiful.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
CHARLES: And he's making millions of pounds of it every day, in Chobani's factory in upstate New York. It's a jungle gym of stainless-steel pipes and tanks and machinery so loud, Ulukaya and I can barely hear each other.
ULUKAYA: The yogurt is made in the tanks upstairs. And once the yogurt is made, we bring it here. And here, it becomes Greek yogurt - right here.
CHARLES: This room is full of machines, called separators. They spin the yogurt, and squeeze out the liquid. This is what Ulukaya's mother used to do in her kitchen, using cheesecloth to strain the yogurt. It's what makes yogurt Greek. With all that liquid strained off, you're left with something that's much thicker, and with a lot more protein.
Ulukaya treats these machines like trade secrets. He won't let me take a picture of them. They're a critical piece of his booming business.
ULUKAYA: And it's not easy to get them. It takes a year to get them. So you have to plan ahead of the time, to be able to make it.
CHARLES: Now, suppose you're some other yogurt company. You watched as Greek yogurt went from being practically unknown in this country, to taking over nearly a quarter of the total yogurt market - just in the last five years. You'd like to jump on this bandwagon, too, but you don't have these machines. What do you do?
Maybe you call in the scientists - scientists like Erhan Yildiz, head of research on dairy products, at a company called Ingredion. Now, as it happens, Yildiz is also from Turkey.
ERHAN YILDIZ: My mom used to make strained yogurt all the time. So I'm very familiar with, let's say, original Greek yogurt.
CHARLES: But Yildiz and his colleagues set about finding a way to make it without those expensive straining machines.
YILDIZ: We collected commercial Greek yogurts, and evaluated them for key attributes.
CHARLES: They measured the firmness and the thickness of those Greek yogurts; also, qualities I'd never heard of before - residual mouth-coating, melt-away, jiggle; 14 attributes in all.
YILDIZ: This is like, almost fingerprinting a product. That combination of those key attributes really identifies what that product is all about.
CHARLES: And then they set about duplicating that product. They started with regular yogurt, and added different versions of starch - either from corn or tapioca. And as they tweaked the quality and the quantity of starch, they kept measuring those key attributes.
YILDIZ: You know, if you can measure something, then you can manipulate it.
CHARLES: They arrived at a solution that Yildiz says comes pretty close to the original Greek yogurt. It's on store shelves now, he says, although he isn't allowed to say exactly which yogurt manufacturers are using his new ingredient. But you can go to your grocery store, check the labels on Greek yogurt, and see which ones are using added ingredients to make their yogurt thick.
So here's Fage's plain Greek yogurt; no thickeners in this one. But over here, Safeway's in-house brand lists organic corn starch and milk protein concentrate. Here's Yoplait Greek yogurt - also milk protein concentrate.
Now, Ehran Yildiz doesn't think there's anything wrong with this. Authentic Greek yogurt, he says, is just what you make of it. Hamdi Ulukaya, though, the head of Chobani - he gets angry just thinking about it. We don't mind competitors if they try to make really good Greek yogurt, he says, but these are just cheap imitations.
ULUKAYA: Our competition is the bad yogurt maker using the name of the yogurt, taking advantage of it. That ruins the expectations, in the consumer's mind, how pure and simple this product is.
CHARLES: The problem, as Ulukaya sees it, is there's no legal definition of Greek yogurt anymore than there's a legal definition of, say, a Greek wedding.
ULUKAYA: There's no protection around it. You could make a bowl of macaroni, you could call it Greek yogurt, and nobody will do anything to you - which is sad.
CHARLES: There is a legal definition of yogurt - a so-called standard of identity of yogurt, put out by the Food and Drug Administration. It says, for instance, that yogurt has to be made from milk and bacteria cultures. Most yogurt companies say you can add starch or concentrated milk protein to that product, and still legally call it yogurt. As for whether it's Greek, though, that seems to be a question for the philosophers.
Dan Charles, NPR news.