Walk down the dairy aisle of any grocery store and you will acres of display for yogurt in every form and flavour, non-fat and probiotic to say nothing of the brands. You can’t count how many promises their labels make, nor can you explain the pricing. Yogurt is big business. But is yogurt a healthy choice for you?
Yogurt is essentially just a form of curdled milk much like sour cream. The name originated in Turkey and refers to a tart, thick milk. The many types of yogurt at the market can vary by amount of fat and other ingredients and additives. Plain yoghurt is usually made from cow’s milk and is both unflavoured and unsweetened. Flavoured yogurts have fruit or flavour added.
Yogurt contains lactose, a milk sugar, but a lot of sugar may get added during manufacture. A good clue to how much added sugar (often high-fructose corn syrup) is to check the name on the label: anything promising fancy flavours like Boston Cream Pie or Caramel Macchiato is certain to be full of excess sugar and calories. There may be as much as 18 grams of added sugar in a six-ounce serving, or about four teaspoons! Fruit flavoured offers another clue: anything ‘flavoured’ probably contains little if any actual fruit in the cup, and lots of added sugar.
Other ingredients in the yogurt can include gums, pectin, gelatin or modified corn starch all used to control texture, consistency and preservation. You might also see added fats like palm kernel oil. As for low and non-fat yogurts, they may have less fat, but will often make up for it with more added sugar, and yes, more calories.
One trend that has been unavoidable is towards yogurt containing “probiotic” cultures. These are supposed to benefit digestion and the immune system. That may be true, but for probiotic cultures to have any effect, they have to be live or active. Any yogurt that has been ‘heat treated’ will have no live cultures — heat kills them. And in any case, many of the claims of probiotic yogurts are unsubstantiated or overstated.
Greek yogurt is different from other yogurts and is often touted as superior. Traditional Greek yogurt has the whey (liquid that remains after curdling) strained out. This leads to a thicker consistency with more protein but with less milk and sugar. The absence of whey means there is less calcium so this may not be the right choice for everyone. And as we might expect, some ‘Greek’ yogurt is not actually what it claims to be because producers could be using additives to mimic true Greek yogurt’s thickness and protein.
Yogurt is rich in calcium, protein and other beneficial ingredients making it a good choice for a healthful diet. In deciding what product to buy, choose the least processed, most healthful yogurt — it is probably the one with the shortest list of ingredients. In fact, start with plain yogurt and add your own fruit or nuts, a touch of honey or maple syrup to get just the variety you want.
Many yogurts are genuinely healthy choices, but some are nothing more than junk food with a pretty face, laden with added sugar, fat and additives. Learn the difference and make a healthful choice.
Written by Dr. Paul Martiquet, Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.