The yogurt aisle is probably one of the most confusing sections in the grocery store. From low-fat to high-fat, Greek to Balkan, and probiotic to protein, there are often about 100 different options to choose from so it’s no wonder things can get confusing. However, when you break it all down, I promise the yogurt section is not as complicated as it seems. So here is a guide to buying healthy yogurt so you know exactly what to look for and why.
What is Real Yogurt?
First things first, we need to understand what yogurt actually is, specifically real yogurt. Yogurt is made by fermenting milk with bacterial culture. Traditionally, this was done to help extend the lifetime of the milk, improve digestibility and ensure it was not prone to bacterial contamination. The ingredients required to make yogurt are milk, bacterial culture, and nothing else. The label on a real yogurt container should list only two or three ingredients: milk or cream, or a combination of milk and cream and live cultures.
The Benefits of Real Yogurt
Yogurt has been a part of cuisines around the world for generations, and when you focus on real yogurt it does have health benefits. Real yogurt, especially from grass-fed animals, is a naturally occurring source of protein, fats, carbohydrates, and probiotics. Additionally, when good quality full-fat dairy is used to make yogurt it contains vital nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins A and D, calcium, vitamin B6, B12, and CLA.
Types of Healthy Yogurt
In addition to traditional yogurt, there are many other varieties or ways to make yogurt:
Greek Yogurt: The traditional process of making natural Greek yogurt is done by straining regular yogurt extensively to remove excess liquid whey and lactose, leaving behind a thicker-textured yogurt, and a tangy, creamy product. This produces a yogurt lower in carbohydrates (or natural sugars) and higher in protein content per serving.
Balkan-Style: Balkan-style yogurt differs from regular yogurt as it is made in small individual batches rather than in large vats. The warm cultured milk mixture is poured into containers and then incubated without any further stirring, giving it its thick texture.
Probiotic Yogurt: All real yogurt contains probiotics, however, given the production process of many commercial yogurts, not all store-bought yogurts contain probiotics. Naturally cultured and fermented yogurt will contain probiotic bacteria, however, because many commercial brands no longer use traditional methods to make yogurt, although they contain bacterial cultures, not all bacterial cultures have a probiotic effect. In Canada, all yogurts must contain Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, however, some brands will add additional bacteria cultures to increase the probiotic content to make “probiotic yogurt”. Only real yogurt contains naturally occurring probiotic bacteria, so if the label states “active bacterial cultures” the yogurt has probiotics.
Icelandic Yogurt: Traditionally known as skyr, Icelandic yogurt is a style of yogurt that dates back thousands of years. Although yogurt and skyr are both cultured dairy products, it is the original skyr cultures used to make skyr that make it different. Skyr is a strained non-fat yogurt that is made by incubating skim milk with active bacterial cultures.
Unfortunately, the majority of common store-bought yogurts, especially the popular brands, do not use traditional methods to make yogurt, and therefore do not have the same nutritional benefits. In fact, nowadays commercial producers often manufacture yogurt with milk ingredients (i.e. milk protein, skim milk powder, stabilizers, and gelatin). This is done mostly for convenience in production, but also because they can produce a cheaper product. Simply look at some of the most common brands and you will see a laundry list of ingredients outside of the necessary whole milk and active bacterial cultures required. Here is a sample of a very popular grocery store brand strawberry-flavored yogurt.
skim milk, strawberries, milk and whey proteins, modified corn starch, active bacterial culture, gelatin, locust bean gum, natural and artificial flavor, pectin, sucralose, color, vitamin a palmitate, vitamin d3, potassium sorbate.
As you can see from the ingredients listed above, not only do many flavored commercial yogurts contain added sugars (or code words for sugar), but they also contain additives, preservatives, thickeners, stabilizers, and artificial coloring. Everything from corn starch to artificial flavor and salt is added to yogurts making them a mini chemical sh$t storm and far removed from what real yogurt actually is.
The Benefits of Fat in Yogurt
Milk is the primary ingredient in yogurt and is one of the only whole foods that contain carbohydrates, protein, and fat naturally occurring in it. In fact, fat is one of the most beneficial macronutrients in milk given it is the source of fat-soluble vitamins. When full-fat milk is used to make yogurt it is a source of vitamin D and calcium, as calcium is more readily absorbed in the presence of fat. However, when non-fat or skim milk is used to make yogurt, the benefits of these fat-soluble nutrients are lost given the fat is no longer present.
Additionally, fat is what gives food flavor and mouthfeel, the absence of fat in yogurt (i.e. – 0%, non-fat, or fat-free yogurts) leaves a tart unappealing flavor to many yogurts and therefore manufacturers add sugar to help make it more palatable. In fact, some common flavored yogurt brands contain up to 20 grams of sugar per 3/4 cup which is almost as much as a Kit Kat chocolate bar. Although many people often think that vanilla yogurt is a lighter option, it often has more added sugar than the fruit-sweetened versions.
How to Buy Healthy Yogurt
When it comes to buying healthy yogurt, there are many options to consider. However, once you start reading labels you’ll begin to realize that what seemed overwhelming at first is not so confusing after all. So, here is a simple guide to buying healthy yogurt:
- Look for Minimal Ingredients: The only way to truly know what type of yogurt you are buying is to read the ingredients list. Remember, real yogurt should only contain milk and active bacterial cultures. The best options will state “whole milk and active bacterial cultures”, however depending on the brand you may also see “skim milk, cream, and active bacterial cultures” which would be the next best option.
- Avoid Added Sugars: It comes as no surprise that added sugar is not an ideal ingredient, however, keep in mind that yogurt is a natural source of sugar (lactose), so all yogurt (even plain) will contain some sugars on the nutrition label. In order to ensure it does not contain added sugar, read the ingredients list. Natural plain yogurt should contain 7 grams of sugar per serving.
- Look for Active Cultures: Real yogurt should contain whole milk and live or active bacterial cultures on the ingredients list, this will ensure that you are getting truly fermented yogurt and the probiotic benefit.
- Opt for Full-Fat: I recommend opting for full-fat yogurt, this means anything from 3.25% to 4% yogurt, this will contain more nutritional benefits due to the presence of the fat.
- Opt for Plain: After eating flavored yogurt transitioning to plain yogurt can be a little rough on the palate, but at the end of the day it will be better for you. If you find it too tart, to begin with, simply add a drizzle of natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup to help make it more palatable. This way you are able to control the level of added sweetener, and over time your taste buds will transition to enjoy the natural flavor of yogurt and less sweetener will be needed.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to buying yogurt the important things to consider are the added sugars and the list of ingredients; the goal is to keep them both to a minimum. If you have the option to buy grass-fed plain full-fat yogurt this would be the best, second to organic plain full-fat yogurt, followed by regular full-fat plain yogurt.
At the end of the day whatever yogurt you chose to buy is totally up to you, but knowledge is power so hopefully, this guide to buying healthy yogurt will give you some of the tools and information you need to get started.