Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

Is Greek Yogurt Better Than Regular?

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

A few years back, when I lived in the predominantly Greek NYC neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, I got hooked on two foods: 1) flaky, cheesy spinach pie, and 2) yogurt from the local Mediterranean specialty market. Thick, creamy, and tangy, it bore little resemblance to the gelatinous American stuff I was used to. I bought big containers of it and ate it every day for breakfast with fruit. Sadly, since moving to California, I have yet to find a spinach pie as delicious as those in Astoria. (Bay Area readers, your tips are welcome.) But happily, at around the time that I moved, American yogurt manufacturers started making Greek-style yogurt, and since then it's exploded in popularity: All my local supermarkets carry it now. I still think it tastes better than American style. But it's also pricier. Which got me wondering: Which kind of yogurt is more nutritious? And which is better for the environment?

Ohio State University nutritionist Julie Kennel Shertzer explained to me that both Greek- and American-style yogurt are made by fermenting milk with live bacteria cultures—the only difference is that Greek yogurt is strained to remove the liquid whey, hence its thicker consistency. (The Greek yogurt company Fage has a good explanation of the process here.) Both are nutritional superstars: They're excellent sources of calcium and good sources of protein, their bacteria cultures aid digestion, and the unsweetened low- and nonfat varieties are low in calories. But according to Shertzer, Greek yogurt does have a few nutritional advantages over regular yogurt: "Since it's a more concentrated product, it packs a few more grams of protein per serving," she says. It's also a bit lower in sugar and carbohydrates, since lactose, a form of sugar present in all dairy products, is removed with the whey.

But Greek yogurt is not better for the environment than American-style yogurt, for one simple reason: It requires much more milk to make. For American-style yogurt, the ratio of milk to final yogurt product is about 1:1 (sometimes more like 1.3:1, since many manufacturers add in a little bit of condensed skim milk to improve the texture and protein content), while for Greek yogurt it's often as high as 4:1. Considering that dairy farms take quite a toll on the environment and produce a large amount of greenhouse gases (a recent United Nations study found that 3 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from milk production, including shipping) the environmental difference between Greek and American yogurt is fairly significant.

There's another problem, too: What to do with the whey that's left over from the Greek yogurt straining process? Rolf Carlson, vice president of sourcing and development at the yogurt manufacturer Stonyfield Farm explained that there are two kinds of whey: Sweet whey can be used as a food additive, but acid whey isn't as useful. Many major yogurt manufacturers give their acid whey to farmers to be used as animal feed or fertilizer, but according to Carlson, farmers must be careful when applying it to cropland, since whey runoff can pollute waterways (PDF). "It can affect the microbiology of the water," says Carlson. Some good news: Both Stonyfield Farm and the Greek yogurt company Chobani told me they are in the process building pricey anaerobic digesters to convert their waste whey into energy to power the factories.

If you're worried about Greek yogurt's environmental problems, you might consider making your own at home, and using the leftover whey: Simply pour American-style yogurt into cheesecloth and strain it for several hours over a container. The yogurt in the cheesecloth will be thicker and creamier when it's done. Use the whey left in the container instead of water to make rice—or in biscuits or just about any baking recipe in place of water. Supposedly you can also drink it. (I've never tried it, but Mother Jones co-editor-in-chief Monika Bauerlein swears it's delicious.)

Corrections appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that lactose is created during the fermentation process. It's actually present in all dairy products. An earlier version also stated that acid whey was inedible; it's actually just less desirable as a food additive.

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BP Oil Coming to Your Beach, and More News from the Gulf

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Is oil from the BP disaster in the Gulf headed your way? According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) the spill "might soon extend along thousands of miles of the Atlantic coast and open ocean as early as this summer." Watch this video to see how your local beach might be affected. Closer to the spill epicenter, MoJo reporters Mac McClelland and Julia Whitty continue to blog, snap lots of pictures, and tweet live from the Gulf, while Kate Sheppard keeps tabs on the politics of the spill. Recent updates:

For more up-to-the-minute updates on the spill, check out our BP coverage and the Blue Marble blog. You can also follow Mac McClelland, Julia Whitty, Kate Sheppard, The Climate Desk, and the Blue Marble on Twitter.

Pro-Life Movement Goes "Green"

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 4:28 PM EDT

The pro-life coalition American Life League has a new tactic for convincing women not to use birth control: The Pill Kills the Environment campaign, set to launch this Saturday, June 5. From the "Talking Points" section of the campaign website:

Q: What can we do to help save our environment?
A: Educate! Educate the women in your life about the dangerous consequences the birth control pill can have, not only on them but on their preborn baby and all of the people in their community as well. The very fact that scientists are finding "intersex" fish, that is male fish with eggs in their testes, should be enough to alarm the environmentalists in your area and others that are concerned about protecting our environment. Scientists are finding that the presence of female hormones in our water is making male fish, frogs and river otters less masculine.

Oy. It's true that the hormones from birth control are a problem in waterways, but ALL's take on the subject lacks some serious perspective, to say the least. As we reported in an Econundrum on the subject:

Long-lasting devices like diaphragms create less waste than single-use rubbers, which can end up in sewers, clog waste treatment plants, and potentially pose a threat to wildlife. The Pill, while waste free, sends small amounts of estrogen into waterways, possibly harming fish. But whatever works for you—the toll of a few prophylactics is nothing compared to the environmental consequences of population growth.

For more on the environmental consequences of overpopulation, read MoJo environment reporter Julia Whitty's excellent piece on the issue here.

In the meantime, if you're worried about the pill's effect on the environment, you might be just the kind of person who would enjoy this. Endangered species condom!

Palin Blames Spill on "Extreme Enviros" and More News From the Gulf

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 9:28 AM EDT

On Tuesday, Sarah Palin posted a new screed on Facebook bashing environmentalists for being the cause of the Gulf oil spill. No, really. Meanwhile, back on Earth, MoJo reporters Mac McClelland and Julia Whitty continue to blog and tweet live from the Gulf beaches, while Kate Sheppard keeps tabs on the politics of the spill. And if you haven't checked out Mac's and Julia's photos yet, they're worth a gander. Trust me. Mac's are here, and Julia's shots of birds battling oil are here.  Some sample tweets and links to our recent coverage of BP and the spill that's shaping up to be the environmental disaster of the century:

@JuliaWhitty: The oil in the seawater is as tacky as wax. I'd like to give the BP bigwigs fully-body Brazilian waxes #bp #oilspill

@MacMcClelland: A big lake of concentrated #BP crude has just been spotted coming toward the coast of Grand Isle.

For more up-to-the-minute updates on the spill, check out our BP coverage and the Blue Marble blog. You can also follow Mac McClelland, Julia Whitty, Kate Sheppard, The Climate Desk, and the Blue Marble on Twitter. 

Feds' Criminal Probe of BP, and More Oil Spill News

| Wed Jun. 2, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

We've been keeping close tabs on the environmental horror show unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. MoJo human rights reporter Mac McClelland and environment reporter Julia Whitty are on the scene at the oil spill, tweeting and blogging as run BP's corporate blockade, while Kate Sheppard reports on the politics of the spill. The big news yesterday was the Department of Justice's announcement that it's launching a criminal probe into the oil rig explosion, and that and that the federal government is weighing both criminal and civil penalties for the disaster. Read more here.

Sample tweets from our reporters in the Gulf:

@MacMcClelland: Even on the beach we're allowed on, there are tar piles big as a 5-yr-old. And this beach was already cleaned today. #BP

@JuliaWhitty: Remember the book On the Beach? Nuclear fallout wafting towards the last survivors? That's what today on the Mississippi coast felt like.

More coverage:

  • BP Hires Cheney's Press Flack: Anne Womack Kolton will serve as the new "head of U.S. media relations" as the company deals with the PR disaster of the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf. Kolton was Cheney's press secretary during the 2004 campaign, and then moved to a job in public affairs at the Department of Energy.
  • As Hurricane Season Kicks Off, Gulf Oil Worries Grow: Tuesday was the first day of what's expected to be a bad hurricane season. Especially worrisome, since hurricanes imperil the thousands of miles of oil pipelines that snake across the Gulf. The storms also threaten to churn up the millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf, pushing the slick further on land and spreading it out over a larger area.
  • How BP, MMS Ignored Spill Warning Signs: New documents show that both BP and federal regulators at the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service had plenty of warning that the drilling operation at the Macondo well site was plauged with problems.
  • Hollywood to the Rescue: Believe it or not, Kevin Costner and James Cameron have some interesting ideas. But, um, why didn't BP think of them first?

For more up-to-the-minute updates on the spill, check out our BP coverage and the Blue Marble blog. You can also follow Mac McClelland, Julia Whitty, Kate Sheppard, and the Blue Marble on Twitter.  

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