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Biological Chemistry

Culture War

Chobani Yogurt flap pushed scientists’ emotional buttons

by Carmen Drahl
June 23, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 25

Credit: Piper Klemm
Piper Klemm: “Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists” -chobani grrrrr
A round foil lid with the words “Nature go us to 100 calories, not scientists. #howmatters.”
Credit: Piper Klemm
Piper Klemm: “Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists” -chobani grrrrr

Piper Klemm did not set out to start a movement from the breakfast table. But when the chemist and start-up company founder peeled back the foil lid on a container of Chobani Greek yogurt recently, she got angry.

The lid reads, “Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists,” and promotes a Chobani social media campaign by adding the hashtag #howmatters. Klemm vented her rage on Twitter. Then, she went about her day. When she next checked in, she was in the eye of a social media firestorm.

Scientists from all disciplines had rallied to Klemm’s cause. Chemists, entomologists, and programmers alike were sharing her photo of the yogurt lid and angrily denouncing Chobani. Some scientists engaged in a little “hashtag activism” and turned the company’s #howmatters hashtag into something it did not expect. They reminded the firm just how much science goes into mass-producing and distributing its 100-calorie yogurt cups.

In response to the proscience outcry, Chobani’s Twitter feed turned into a stream of more than 100 apologies. Some of the company’s tweets, for example one that claimed that the yogurt was “chemical-free,” only further raised researchers’ ire.

In a statement provided to C&EN, Chobani said it has discontinued the lid. Its message “was not intended as an indictment of science or scientists but a celebration of nature,” the statement reads.

Companies referring to products as natural are nothing new. But Klemm thinks she knows why this particular marketing faux pas went viral. “Most of the things that say ‘chemical-free’ don’t attack scientists directly. I read this lid, and it felt like an attack on me personally.”

“I felt like I was being judged by my freaking yogurt,” agrees Gwen Pearson, the network manager for the Organization of Biological Field Stations. Pearson regularly purchases Chobani. So when she heard the news, she went straight to her refrigerator and began opening containers. She found one of the infamous lids on her third try.

“It’s clear that the marketing team just didn’t think through all the angles for this campaign,” says Brigham Young University chemistry graduate student Chad Jones, who covered the fiasco on his podcast, “The Collapsed Wavefunction.”

Up to a point, the campaign was understandable, he says. It promoted the “natural” aspect of Chobani’s yogurt, something many consumers find appealing. “Hopefully Chobani’s learned some lessons that will spread through the industry,” Jones adds, “but that’s probably too optimistic.”

Klemm and Pearson both think that the situation was a success for science communication. Everyday people, Klemm says, want to talk about everyday aspects of science that she was never taught how to articulate. Concerns about food are at or near the top of the list. Chobani’s flub, she says, was an excuse for scientists to enter that conversation.

Chobani will send a free yogurt to any scientist who contacts the company at But Pearson, now an ex-Chobani customer, offered this pointed response: “It’s going to take more than 99 cents’ worth of free yogurt to win me back.”

A diagram explaining the industrial manufacture of yogurt.
Credit: Shutterstock (milk, Homogenize and pasteurize, ferment, yogurt)/ ScienceSource (yogurt cultures)


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