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Why Whole Foods Really Dropped Chobani: The Yogurt Wasn't Classy Enough Anymore

By early 2014, the rainbow of Chobani yogurt cups will have disappeared from the shelves of Whole Foods stores, says a Wednesday Wall Street Journal scoop. Ostensibly, it’s because the popular Greek yogurt is made from the milk of GMO-fed cows; last March, the Cadillac of grocery stores announced it would remove or label all products that contain genetically modified ingredients by 2018, to satisfy the health awareness of its yoga-pants-and-farmers-markets clientele. But the chain all but admitted that there’s more to the decision. For one, it still stocks plenty of yogurts that contain GMOs. And it told the Journal it had it had “challenged... suppliers to create unique options,” and it needed “to make room for product choices that aren't readily available” at other stores. “At this time, Chobani has chosen a different business model,” Whole Foods sniffed. In other words, Chobani, which has risen from an upstart company in 2007 to the most popular Greek yogurt in the American market, picked mass appeal over high appeal, and now that it’s available in every corner grocer and mom-and-pop shop, it’s not fit to grace the aisles of Whole Foods.

Chobani's CEO appears to have read the snub the same way. "We're mass and we're proud of it and consumers everywhere can find our Greek Yogurt at their local stores," he said in a statement.

Sure, Whole Foods’ needs to find something other than high prices to propel it upwards in the competition for bourgie shoppers. But Chobani’s exile has historic import. This is the moment when Greek yogurt became démodé.      

All things that begin on the upper edge are doomed to slide down to the proletarian floor, and Greek yogurt is no exception. Indeed, yogurt of any variety was a rare delicacy in the U.S. until as recently as the 1940s. Its transformation from Middle Eastern oddity to ubiquitous snack was the work of a single man: Daniel Carasso, the French founder of the Dannon brand (Danone in Europe). As The New York Times wrote in Carasso’s obituary (he lived to see 103), yogurt wasn’t a smooth sell on this side of the Atlantic: “The little company operated at a loss until 1947, when, in a concession to the American sweet tooth, strawberry jam was added to the yogurt. Sales took off, new flavors were added to the product line, and Dannon yogurt made the leap from specialty product to snack food and dessert.”

Sweet yogurt had lost any gloss of gentility long ago by the time sour yogurt took the food industry by storm in the late 2000s. Fage set up shop in the U.S. in 2004, and Chobani was close behind. Since then foodies and economists alike have tried to divine the secret to the dairy product’s unstoppable ascent: Greek yogurt made up fully one-third of the yogurt market in 2013, up from a single perfect in 2007. “Sour foods are also growing because of what they aren’t: Sweet,” Slate theorized this summer. “With public health officials and influential food polemicists in open warfare with soda and corn syrup, the opposite of their flavor profile sounds an awful lot safer to many consumers.” Though some of the other examples of the sour craze—pickled veggies; or kombucha, with its opaque countenance and slightly ominous fizz—are still on the rise, Greek yogurt appears to have entered decline. It may still be cultured, but it’s no longer sophisticated.

This post has been updated.