The first two groups of brands considered in Foods That Make Billions, bottled water and breakfast cereals, are both examples of very simple raw materials (water or grain) that can be consumed by humans with minimal processing.
Water from a spring or upland stream can often be drunk straight from the source, although the obvious alternative to bottles for most Europeans – tap water – has been processed to ensure it is safe to drink. Raw cereals can be chewed without processing, (provided you have good teeth!) but are much more digestible and easier to eat if cooked, as in porage/porridge.
In both cases, the branded product offers benefits compared to buying the raw commodity and doing minimal processing yourself, but only in terms of taste, convenience or some more tenuous aspect of “lifestyle”.
Yoghurt is different. As anyone who has left their carton of milk for too long knows, milk does not store well in its raw state. So some processing is inevitable if we are to consume milk at any distance from the cow. Traditionally, there was surplus milk available during the summer, when grazing was plentiful for the livestock.
To store this surplus, it was converted into cheese, butter or other products that would keep for longer because of natural preservatives (mainly lactic acid) formed during their fermentation. Traditional yoghurt would keep better than raw milk, although not forever, but it became a desirable product in its own right because of its taste and perceived health benefits.
Joy of yoghurt
Making your own yoghurt is not particularly difficult. Sterilised milk, with some additional dried milk and seeded with a spoonful of commercial yoghurt will make an excellent product if kept warm for 24 hours. But how many of us with the much vaunted “24/7” lifestyles has time to mix and prepare yoghurt for themselves?
Danone and its competitors are therefore providing us with access to a valuable food in a convenient form, for which there just isn't a generally practical alternative. We can of course ask whether anyone really needs yoghurt, although it is a valuable source of dietary calcium and high quality protein. The bacterial additions may or may not help, and fruit yoghurts (as opposed to fruit flavoured ones) may also encourage children to consume some fruit, which is beneficial.
The real joy of yoghurt is its taste and convenience though, again, much of the taste could be obtained from fruits that are already “packaged” in their skins! So there does seem to be a stronger justification for factory produced yoghurts than there is for bottled water.
The obvious question-mark against yoghurt is the packaging, as considered in U116 Environment; journeys through a changing world.
Like water bottles, the pot is manufactured from oil-based plastic in one factory, then the pots are transported, using more oil, to the milk processing factory, to be filled and capped with an aluminium foil lid and transported once more via the supermarket to the consumer. Extracting aluminium is one of the most energy-intensive metal extractions.
One source suggests that the energy embodied in a typical plastic pot would run a 60watt bulb for an hour, although they also note that the mass of plastic in the average yoghurt pot has halved since 1970. You might like to try a little experiment – weigh an empty conventional flowerpot-shaped pot, and one of the pots with a separate compartment for the fruit. Not much evidence of reduction in plastic use there!
The problem is compounded by the difficulty of recycling the particular plastic used for yogurt pots. At present, few recycling schemes in the UK seem to accept the pots, although the foil tops can be recycled in many areas. Plastics recycling is better developed in continental Western Europe, so it's not impossible.
Unlike water bottles, it's not feasible to refill your yogurt pot from a more environmentally friendly source. Refillable glass jars have been suggested as an alternative, but as with the old milk bottles, the critical aspect is the number of trips that each container makes. Unless the container is used many times, glass containers are generally less energy efficient.
So, if we value the positive aspects of yoghurt, what should we do to be environmentally responsible? If we can't make our own, the least we can do is buy ones with minimal packaging, and press our councils to ensure that the used pots are recycled. If there is a local producer, buy their product. At the very least, we should think before we buy.