yoghurt, history of yoghurt, cultural heritage

Yoghurt, whose is it? Yoghurt as cultural exchange

10 minutes to read
Article
Stella Veranoudi
23/09/2019

If I hear yoghurt, I'll most likely think of Greek yoghurt. Greek yoghurt has become popular around the world as part of a Mediterranean diet and its health benefits. However, yoghurt is not originally Greek, and countries such as Turkey and Bulgaria are branding it as part of their own cultural heritage as well. As practices of trade and cultural exchange have existed long before the 21st century globalization, this article aims to argue why yoghurt should be considered an example of cultural exchange instead of cultural heritage.

The Balkan or Aegean region is not unfamiliar with disputes over historical claims and claims of cultural heritage. Many, if not all the countries in the region of south eastern Europe, share similar customs and traditions. In the past they have shared geographical areas and been involved in the same historic events. Each country claims its history and culture as their own. A few kilometers away though, over the border, one can come across a similar culture and history presented with another narrative. I am not a specialist by any means, nor do I claim to be, but I am a native of this region (half Greek/half Bulgarian).

I have visited many of the countries in the Balkan region and it’s not uncommon to see the same components of cultural heritage, whether that be drinks, food, dances, music, folk culture, etc. Of course, there is nothing strange about this, if one considers the common denominator in the region was the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years - a historical fact that most of the countries in the region, with the exception of Turkey, will leave out when they introduce you to their cultural heritage.

Yoghurt, whose is it?

The origin of the word yoghurt (or yogurt/yogourt/yoghourt) is Turkish, from the verb yoğurmak, which means to thicken. Yoğun means thick or dense. The cuisine of ancient Greece included what is believed to be a type of yoghurt, called oxygala (οξύγαλα) which means sour milk. The most common type of yoghurt today in Greece, is strained yoghurt (straggisto-στραγγιστό) or what everybody else calls Greek yoghurt. Although no one calls it Greek in Greece. In Bulgaria, yoghurt is mostly called kiselo mljako (кисело мляко), which also means sour milk.

Yoghurt, or at least the type branded as such, contains two main good bacteria, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. Lactobacillus bulgaricus was first identified by the Bulgarian scientist Stamen Grigorov in 1905. He named it after his country, as he claimed that this bacterium was contributing to the long lifespan of the people in his region. The above story is often used by Bulgarians to historically support their country’s contribution to the expansion of yoghurt, or to claim it as a long tradition in their culture.

Historically, however, the origins of yoghurt are somewhat unknown. The earliest findings of yoghurt making practices were recorded in the Middle East (Mesopotamia) almost 5000 years ago. It is also unknown whether the practice of exposing the milk to enzymes and bacteria was intentional or accidental. Those bacteria were what turned the milk into yogurt and helped to preserve it longer.

It is safe to say that historically, no country known as a nation-state today can rightfully claim yoghurt as their own entirely.

During my research for this article, I came across various websites contradicting each other on the origins of yoghurt. It is safe to say that historically, no country known as a nation-state today can rightfully claim yoghurt as their own entirely. Variations of strained yoghurt and the specific bacteria along with other bacteria exist in many parts of the world. Even though the article does not aim to discuss the origins of yoghurt, such mentions are important for the distinction and connection between heritage and history, before I move to my main argument.

Cultural heritage vs. history

Heritage is a construct, recognised within a community, and passed onto us from the past in order to preserve the identity of which it is a part (Dibbits, 2015). Heritage is seen as worthy of respect and protection amongst communities and individuals, a social and political construct which reflects and validates a nation’s identity (Smith, 2009; Akagawa, 2009). Particularly in multicultural societies, heritage represents the meanings and representations brought upon landscapes, mythologies, memories and traditions from the past (Graham, 2008; Howard, 2008). According to these authors, heritage is a key element in shaping identities. A definition of heritage that suits a multicultural region like the Balkans can be found in the Faro Convention (2005, Article 2 – Definitions):   

"Cultural heritage is a group of resources people identify as a reflection and expression of their constantly evolving values, beliefs, knowledge and traditions. It includes all aspects of the environment resulting from the interaction between people and places through time [...] within the framework to sustain and transmit to future generations."

Heritage though doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with history. Often heritage is not based on historical facts, but on biased historical narratives aimed at constructing an identity (Lowenthal, 1998; Moody, 2015). Other scholars believe heritage and history are not that different, as they both involve subjective interpretation of selective materials (Harvey, 2001) to reconstruct the past which ultimately allows heritage to become the history of the future (Lowenthal, 1998; Moody, 2015). 

Therefore, one can observe that yoghurt falls into a category of cultural heritage, with no specific historical facts but with the aim to construct a history of today and tomorrow. In other words, present day communities are claiming a tradition for their future generations. However, since cultural heritage is not always entirely based on historical facts, one might wonder why is it important to care for it, such as in the case of yoghurt.

Locality and Authenticity

There are two aspects where false claims of cultural heritage can pose and create further issues and problems. The first, especially within the EU, can be seen under Article 4 - Rights and responsibilities relating to cultural heritage in the Faro Convention (2005).

“Everyone alone or collectively has the right to benefit from the cultural heritage and to contribute towards its enrichment and the responsibility to respect the cultural heritage of others as much as their own heritage, and consequently the common heritage of Europe. Exercise of the right to cultural heritage may be subject only to those restrictions which are necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the public interest and the rights and freedoms of others." 

Thus, if one’s claims of cultural heritage contradict the claims of others on the same subject, even if no malicious intent is involved in doing so, how can two or more contradicting stories be accepted and more importantly preserved? How can this further contribute to the idea of solidarity and friendship between countries within the EU? For example, if yoghurt or food culture in general is used to promote tourism, there is the element of deceit towards foreigners and tourists with little to no knowledge of the area’s history. 

That brings me to the second problem, which has to do with locality and marketing. When a product is branded as “Greek”, such as Greek yoghurt, one might assume the product is in fact produced in Greece. Further, one might wish to buy it, under the impression the country carries quality products, for example due to its climate. Or one might be eager to contribute to a smaller country’s agricultural economy by supporting their local products. However, that is not always the case.

The situation more easily controlled and regulated within the EU, but internationally the same laws and regulations do not apply. When a product is sold in Greece or any country in the EU for that matter, the locality of a product often drives the consumers to support their local economy and agriculture. It isn't always about the authenticity of the product. In the case of Chobani yoghurt, a brand of "Greek yoghurt" sold in the USA and countries such as the UK, the indication Greek caused a series of lawsuits.

The Chobani case

Greek yoghurt is not a PDO (protected with a designation of origin) product but it does fall under the 2011 EU regulation on the provision of food information to consumers. The lawsuit in 2014 against Chobani was mostly conducted under claims that the company was misleading its customers. The position of the company was, much like English muffins and French fries, our fans understand Greek yoghurt to be a product description about how we authentically make our yoghurt and not about where we make our yoghurt. 

Even if the EU manages to protect the locality of products within its borders, the same will not necessarily apply outside of them if a product is not PDO.

This is a position against which Greece and Greek dairy companies, like Fage, have taken action and tried to fight recent years. In the UK, Fage won the case against Chobani and the company was ordered to more clearly indicate on the packaging that the product is not manufactured in Greece. In Britain, Chobani can no longer market the product as "Greek" but as strained yoghurt, however this is not the case for the company in the US market. The case of Chobani offers a clear perspective that even if the EU manages to protect the locality of products within its borders, the same will not necessarily apply outside of them if a product is not PDO.

There is also the issue of “style yoghurt”, where Chobani’s claim falls, that the marketing is based on the type and not on the locality. “Greek yoghurt is manufactured in Greece according to the relevant long-standing production methods and does not concern a single type of product,” stated the Greek Minister of Agricultural Development and Food commenting on another similar matter, that again involved the misuse of "Greek".

Additionally, marketing techniques such as “Greek style yoghurt”, can still be considered false information, as they leave out a number of countries where the same style is consumed. The popularity of “Greek” yoghurt rose  in the 1990s due to marketing techniques that mostly had to do with the country’s popularity or positive stereotypes about its cuisine. Today however, we must take into account a more inclusive EU and issues of inter-country relationships.

Cultural exchange

Cultural exchange or cultural hybridity is not a new concept in the history of culture and humanities. Cultural exchange through hybridization over the course of time has both been celebrated and criticized. The side which celebrates it mainly focuses on the enrichment of a culture (Burke, 2009) and often views it as a natural course in human history. The opposing side highlights the deterioration of a culture and the confrontation which may derive from it, when one culture tends to be valued more than another.

Exchange or hybridity is perceived negatively especially when viewed as “Americanization” (Burke, 2009). A product like yoghurt is dealt with as a trend or a marketing scheme, while ignoring the variety of cultural contributions to it. In the case of the US market, no attention is paid to local cultures and correct representation but instead is completely ignored. Whereas the EU strives to create laws and regulations to protect the label of local products, US laws seem to disregard such actions.

Turkey, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Israel, Iceland are only a few examples where similar yoghurt types are locally produced but may have a lower market value.

In the age of globalization, locality does not only serve as a label on a product that provides information and protects the consumers, but further workst to protect a culture. In the case of yoghurt, the “Greek” label has been valued and celebrated over the years merely in terms of marketing. In the most recent years, not only has it backfired against the country’s efforts to claim and protect the locality of its products, but it has further ignored other countries' value and contributions to the product. Turkey, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Israel, Iceland are only a few examples where similar yoghurt types are locally produced but may have a lower market value.

Conclusion

Where historical accounts do not offer a clarification on a subject such as in the yoghurt case, the concept of cultural exchange can offer the idea of enrichment. When heritage claims are built on false historic facts and further divide neighboring countries, this is where cultural exchange should be celebrated. Further, when a country falsely tries to associate a product with narratives of long history and national identity, it should be an issue of concern since it often derives from a nationalistic rhetoric. 

In the context of globalization and institutions such as the EU, nationalistic rhetorics do not contribute to cultural heritage, instead they spoil it. A product's value should not be placed based upon cultural stereotypes of regions, but based on the quality of resources, production and technology development. Those are key factors in the food industry that exist outside the concept of heritage, and can be universally shared, developed and exchanged.

Cultural exchange can shift the focus to individuals and local communities rather than false accounts of cultural heritage

The concept of exchange might allow countries to focus more on protecting their products' locality as well as the authenticity of local manufacturing. This will perhaps allow a shift in protecting smaller businesses and developing local agriculture and economy. Cases like the Chobani will not be the last in an evolving, globalized market. The situation still remains for legislation to protect authenticity regarding the international market.   

In an even wider context, that of the world-wide-web, misleading information and contradicting origin stories will be even harder to control. Issues like these are important to focus on, first for celebrating cultural exchange in topics like food culture, and further to construct the axis for future legislation when the interests of local agriculture and economy. Cultural exchange can shift the focus to individuals and local communities rather than false accounts of cultural heritage which only further contradictions.

References

Burke, P. (2009). Cultural hybridity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Dibbits, H. (2015). Sharing the Past: Heritage and Education in the 21st Century. Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Graham, B. & Howard, P. (2008). The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity. Routledge.

Harvey, D. (2001). Heritage Pasts and Heritage Presents: temporality, meaning and the scope of heritage studies. In: International Journal of Heritage Studies. DOI: 10.1080/13581650120105534

Lowenthal, D. (1998). The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Cambridge University Press.

Moody, J. (2015). Heritage and History. In: Waterton, E. & Watson, S. (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Heritage Research, chapter 6, pp. 113-129. Palgrave Macmillan. London.

Smith, L. & Akagawa, N. (eds.) (2009). Intangible Heritage. Routledge. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY.