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Yogurt: Which is the Best Choice?

Navigating the Dairy Aisle: Your Comprehensive Guide to Choosing the Healthiest Yogurt


Choosing yogurt is like navigating a maze, but fret not! Dive into this guide by experts Lori A Smolin, PhD, and Mary B Grosvenor, MS, RD. Discover the origins, health benefits, and key considerations for selecting the perfect yogurt. From live cultures to nutrient content, learn how to make the best choice for your taste buds and nutritional goals.

Culinary Medicine

 

Choosing a carton of yogurt from the dairy aisle can be overwhelming. There is low-fat, non-fat, full-fat, no sugar added, Greek, Icelandic skyr, fruit on the bottom, fruit mixed in, and fruit on the side  as well as flavors ranging from strawberry and vanilla to key-lime pie, coffee, and s’mores. It’s more confusing than choosing a Netflix show and has greater implications for your health.


Yogurt is a fermented dairy product made by adding the bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus to milk, which is then allowed to sit for several hours at a warm temperature. The bacteria convert the milk sugar lactose into lactic acid, resulting in a thickened, tart-tasting product with a longer shelf life than milk.  Its origins date back to 10,000 to 5,000 BCE when it was accidentally produced as milk was transported in sacs made from animal intestines. The intestinal secretions in the sacs caused the milk to curdle and sour producing yogurt.[1]


Health Benefits of Yogurt

For thousands of years yogurt has been known for its health-promoting properties.[1] But it wasn’t until the 20th century that we began to understand why yogurt affects our health. Some of the benefits are due to its nutrient content; yogurt is a good source of protein, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. Other benefits are related to the live bacteria that most yogurts contain. In 1909, it was even suggested that the bacteria in yogurt contributed to the long life of yogurt-eating Bulgarian peasants.[2] Although there is no conclusive evidence to support this connection, yogurt consumption is correlated with a healthy gut, good immune function, and reduced risk of osteoporosis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.[3,4] When beneficial live bacteria, known as probiotics, are consumed, they live temporarily in the colon and impact the community of microorganisms that inhabit the GI tract, referred to as the microbiota. There is good evidence that probiotics have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and even anti-carcinogenic activities.[5] An unhealthy microbiome has been linked to the risk for gastrointestinal disease as well as systemic conditions ranging from obesity and diabetes to arthritis and mental health disorders.[6] Consuming probiotics in yogurt supports a healthy microbiota.


Considerations in Choosing a Yogurt 

So, what should you look for when choosing among the endless varieties of yogurt?  One place to start is to look for one with live bacteria, called live or active cultures.  While all yogurts start with live cultures, processing and storage can reduce the amount that remains in the yogurt. Products that are labeled “heat treated after culturing” do not contain active culture whereas those labeled with “live and active cultures” or “probiotic” still contain live bacteria. 


Once you’ve established that your yogurt contains active cultures, think about what else you are looking for in a yogurt. Texture and taste are obviously important. Both Greek yogurt and skyr are thicker and creamier than regular yogurt.  Yogurt with added fruit or other flavoring is sweeter so it cuts the tartness of plain yogurt.  Nutrient content is also important. Health recommendations tell us to increase our calcium intake while keeping our added sugar intake to less than 50 grams per day and our saturated fat to less than 20 grams per day. For some people, other factors such as reduced calories, low carb, high protein, or minimal additives may also be important.


To find a yogurt that meets your criteria, look at the food label.  Yogurt naturally contains calcium and some are fortified with additional amounts.  The Nutrition Facts panel will show you how much calcium your choice provides. The  Nutrition Facts also lists the calories, carbohydrate, added sugars, fat, saturated fat, and protein. The ingredient list will show any sweeteners, colors, thickeners or other additives in the product.


All yogurts contain carbohydrate as lactose, a naturally occurring sugar in milk. Yogurts with added fruits and flavorings may also contain added sugars; sometimes as much as 15 grams in a serving. Flavored products labeled “no sugar added” often contain artificial sweeteners. The amount of fat in yogurt depends on the fat content of the milk used to make it. Whole milk yogurt can contain up to about 7 grams of fat and 4.5 grams of saturated fat. Yogurt made from skim milk typically contains no fat at all. While current scientific evidence indicates that it is not necessary to avoid full-fat dairy products to protect heart health, the fat content will affect the calorie content.[7] So choose a full-fat yogurt if you prefer, but keep in mind that it will add more calories than lower fat varieties. 


The milk used to make yogurt provides its protein but the way the yogurt is processed affects the amount.  A serving of regular yogurt provides 5 to  8 grams of protein; Greek and skyr provide about twice this amount. Greek yogurt is made by straining off some of the liquid that remains after fermentation, leaving a more concentrated product.  Skyr is also strained but starts with a larger volume of milk, so the milk protein is even more concentrated resulting in an even higher protein content than Greek yogurt.





Which is Best? 

The yogurt that is best is one that you enjoy and meets your nutritional goals. For example, if you are working out to build muscle and want to increase your protein intake, you might select Greek yogurt or skyr. If you are looking for less fat or fewer calories you may not want a product made with whole milk. Low-fat and nonfat yogurts are lower in calories as long as they do not contain too many calories from added sugars. If you want less added sugar, choose a plain yogurt, and add your own fruit to flavor it. If the yogurt that passes your taste test doesn’t match up with your nutritional goals remember that the carton you eat for breakfast, lunch, or a snack is only one part of your overall diet. 


 

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References


[1] Fisberg M, Machado R. History of Yogurt and Current Patterns of Consumption. Nutrition Reviews. 2015;73(1):4-7. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuv020


[2] Gasbarrini G, Bonvicini F, Gramenzi A. Probiotics History. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2016;50 Suppl 2, Proceedings from the 8th Probiotics, Prebiotics & New Foods for Microbiota and Human Health meeting held in Rome, Italy on September 13-15, 2015:S116-S119. doi:10.1097/MCG.0000000000000697


[3] Hadjimbei E, Botsaris G, Chrysostomou S. Beneficial Effects of Yoghurts and Probiotic Fermented Milks and Their Functional Food Potential. Foods. 2022;11(17):2691. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/foods11172691


[4] Schmid D, Song M, Zhang X, Willett WC, Vaidya R, Giovannucci EL, Michels KB. Yogurt consumption in relation to mortality from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all causes: a prospective investigation in 2 cohorts of US women and men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2020 Mar 1;111(3):689-697. Doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqz345.


[5] Kim SK, Guevarra RB, Kim YT, et al. Role of Probiotics in Human Gut Microbiome-Associated Diseases. J Microbiol Biotechnol. 2019;29(9):1335-1340. doi:10.4014/jmb.1906.06064


[6] Vijay, A., Valdes, A.M. Role of the gut microbiome in chronic diseases: a narrative review. Eur J Clin Nutr 76, 489–501 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41430-021-00991-6


[7] Giosuè A, Calabrese I, Vitale M, Riccardi G, Vaccaro O. Consumption of Dairy Foods and Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2022;14(4):831. Published 2022 Feb 16. doi:10.3390/nu14040831





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