Most people would quickly categorize yogurt as a health food; a go to snack option for the weight conscious, and more recently, those interested in yogurt’s gut-health boosting acclamations. But looks (and good marketing) can be deceiving, and much of the yogurt finding its way into grocery baskets today is far removed from its original variety.
There’s even controversy over whether some of those tubs can legally be labeled as yogurt. Is unhealthy yogurt making its way into your fridge?
What is Yogurt, anyway?
Originating in Eastern Europe, yogurt most likely came to life as one of those “accidental inventions” that happen when the universe is feeling charitable towards its human occupants. Yogurt is created when the protein (casein) and natural sugar in milk (lactose) are fermented by beneficial bacteria. This process produces lactic acid, and gives yogurt its characteristic tangy taste and creamy texture.
It also happens to prevent milk from spoiling, which was particularly convenient before the age of industrialization– when refrigeration wasn’t all the rage that it is today.
As luck (or nature) would have it, lactic acid halts putrefying bacteria, and when enough is produced through fermentation, the delicious dairy product it resides in will be effectively preserved from spoilage– anywhere from several days or weeks, to a few years with some varieties of cheese.
The pre-refrigeration-era humans who discovered fermented dairy were happy enough to have the shelf life of their milk supply extended, but as it turns out, the fermentation of milk results in numerous beneficial changes, including:
- Production of enzymes that help the body digest the milk, and better absorb calcium and other minerals present
- Increased levels of Vitamins B and C
- Break down of casein, one of the most difficult proteins to digest
- Production of lactase which allows those with dairy sensitivities to better tolerate milk products
- Presence of beneficial cultures which are vital for immune and gut health
You may be a yogurt lover, or think that you are, but the yogurt products that tout all those alluring health benefits have been modified to satisfy a Western sweet tooth and demand for cheap groceries.
Yogurt has a natural sour taste, due to the lactic acid present. If you’ve grown up eating the real stuff, it is a pleasant tang, but it’s a flavor that would land unfavorably on most American tongues. In order to cover up the tang, yogurt manufacturers add huge amounts of our favorite additive–sugar– frequently in the form of corn syrup, but disguised as wholesome fruit additions.
Health Food, or Dessert?
Yogurt does have some natural sugar present, in the form of lactose. But when you eat yogurts swirled and flavored with added sweeteners, you’re securing a front row seat on the blood sugar roller coaster. If sugar is your vice and you’ve come to accept that, that’s one thing. But to lap up sugary yogurt in the name of health seems pretty counterintuitive to me.
Would you prefer a twinkie, or a cup of yogurt?
If you want to cut back on your sugar intake, then the age-defying, frosting-filled sponge treat may just be your best bet. Weighing in at a hefty 19 grams of sugar, the twinkie– ultimate in junk food punch lines– actually contains less sugar than many store bought yogurt varieties.
The added sugar that is present in many commercial yogurts coincidentally negates the health benefits that many yogurt-eaters seek out. Sugar is the favorite food of non-beneficial bacteria that when given the opportunity, (and the right diet) will kick the helpful, beneficial strains right out of the way. If you’re concerned with the health of your gut (which you most likely are if you’re a regular yogurt eater) you may want to take a closer look at those flavored tubs.
In addition to the sugar, many manufacturers will also toss in artificial colors and sweeteners, and additives that further strip yogurt of it’s health-giving capabilities.
So what’s a yogurt lover to do?
At my house, we only buy plain yogurt (I actually make my own yogurt, but I realize that’s not the most convenient for everyone). If you think you will be grieving the absence of sweet swirl-ins and toppings, you have yet to experience the simple perfection of yogurt drizzled with good honey. The summertime provides us with fresh fruit for topping, and in the winter frozen berries get cooked nearly every night to top bowls of yogurt after dinner.
Some of my favorite healthy yogurt additions include:
- nut butter
- slivered almonds
- fresh berries
- vanilla extract
- cooked frozen berries
- homemade granola
If you want to check out how your store-bought yogurt stacks up, you can look for it on Cornucopia Institute’s Yogurt Guide.
And as a final recommendation, skip the fat free yogurt varieties. The important vitamins found in milk, like A and D, are fat-soluble and therefore require fat to be absorbed and utilized by the body (source). Plus, it will keep you satisfied longer, and it’s 100x more delicious.
Don't let me do all the talking! Let me know what you think in the comments.