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Yogurts Go International

by Erica Ilton, RDN, CDN  

It may be difficult to imagine now, but shopping for yogurt at the supermarket was once a pretty boring affair: Dannon, the company that introduced this fermented dairy product to the U.S. in the early 1940s, was the sole purveyor, and “plain” was the predominant “flavor.” In 1977, the famous "Georgians Over 100" commercial—which, despite lack of evidence, linked the supposedly extra-long lives of Soviet Georgians to yogurt—advanced the popularity of yogurt in America.

It took another couple of decades for the now-ubiquitous Greek-style yogurt to make its debut here, with sales skyrocketing in more recent years. In fact, as of 2015, more than half of all new yogurt products in the U.S. were Greek-style, up from 12 percent in 2010.

But nowadays, Greek yogurt is facing some growing international competition from Iceland, Australia, and France, with products coming in some pretty interesting flavors—such as strawberry-rhubarb, lingonberry, blackberry-serrano, and pear-cardamom.

First, some yogurt basics

Yogurt is made by fermenting milk with a bacterial culture (Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus are required by law, but others, like Bifidobacterium bifidus and Lactobacillus acidophilus, may also be added) and then incubating this liquid for several hours until it thickens. The milk’s fat content, origin (cow, sheep, goat), and use of additional cultures impart different consistencies, flavors, and potential health effects to the final product, and techniques such as straining further alter its taste, texture, and nutritional value.

But no matter where they originated or how they are made, all dairy-based yogurts provide protein, calcium, and potassium, along with a range of other vitamins and minerals including B12.

A world tour of yogurts

Here’s what’s trending in the yogurt aisle:

  • Greek yogurt. This tends to be less tangy than “regular” yogurt, but its most distinctive feature is its thick, creamy consistency (even in low-fat and nonfat versions), which is produced by a straining process that eliminates much of the liquid part (whey). Greek yogurt has up to twice as much protein—about 15 to 20 grams per 6 ounces—as regular (unstrained) yogurt and is lower in lactose, the milk sugar that some people have trouble digesting. But it also has less calcium (about 200 versus 300 milligrams per 6 ounces). Plain Greek yogurt of any fat content can be used as a lower-calorie substitute for mayonnaise and sour cream in salad dressings, dips, and other recipes.
  • Icelandic-style yogurt. Traditionally called skyr, this cultured dairy product is thought to have originated in Norway and was brought to Iceland centuries ago, where it remains a diet staple. It’s technically classified as a cheese (similar to fresh, spoonable quark or fromage blanc) but, with its thick, creamy consistency, it is marketed as yogurt in the U.S. The extra dense texture is due to a longer straining process than the one used to produce Greek yogurt and, accordingly, the resulting product is slightly higher in protein and lower in calcium than its Greek counterpart. Traditional skyr is made with skim milk, but whole milk versions are also available. A 2016 Cook’s Illustrated taste test of four skyr products generated comments such as “distinctly cheesy” and “holy moly that is tart!” Skyr is typically mixed with fruit, jam, porridge, and cereals, for example, but it can also be added to smoothies or used in place of cream cheese in recipes or to top baked sweets.
  • Australian-inspired yogurt. This yogurt is an unstrained product that still manages to have a creamier texture than regular yogurt. One popular brand, Wallaby, achieves this through a slow culturing process; another company, Noosa, does it by using only whole milk in its yogurt. Both companies’ plain whole-milk products are higher in calcium and protein than regular plain whole-milk yogurt, and higher in calcium but lower in protein than plain whole-milk Greek yogurt. In addition to its Australian-inspired yogurt (Aussie Smooth), Wallaby also sells a strained product called Aussie Greek (go figure!).
  • French-style yogurt. General Mills added a “French-style” yogurt called Oui to its Yoplait line in 2017 that is inspired by a “traditional French recipe.” Translation: The yogurt is “pot-set”—that is, cultured in individual glass jars instead of being made in large batches and then transferred to smaller containers. French yogurt is unstrained, but because it’s typically made with whole milk, it has a dense, creamy texture. A 5-ounce jar of plain Oui has 5 grams of protein and 150 milligrams of calcium. That's about the same amount of protein as in regular whole-milk yogurt but less calcium—and much less protein than what's in whole-milk Greek yogurt.

Do you need to worry about fat in whole-milk yogurts?

Many of these international-style yogurts come in full-fat versions, sometimes as the only option. It has long been thought that dairy fat is unhealthy because it is made up largely of saturated fatty acids, which can raise blood cholesterol. But recent research is finding that the types of saturated fatty acids in dairy have a neutral effect on cardiovascular health and that yogurt and other fermented dairy products, in particular—no matter their fat content—may even be beneficial for the heart.

A review of the literature, published in the journal Food in 2018, concluded that “after years of controversy the negative image of milk fat is weakening,” and that full-fat dairy products, especially fermented ones, can be consumed in moderation “as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle.”

Still, ounce for ounce, whole-milk yogurts are usually higher in calories than low-fat and nonfat ones, and if they contribute to weight gain over time, that could negatively impact health. (Depending on the brand and flavor, however, some lower-fat yogurts have more calories per ounce than full-fat yogurts because they have more added sugar.)

Bottom line: No matter their country of origin, all yogurts provide key nutrients. But just because these higher-end, international-style yogurts often tout that they are free of preservatives, artificial flavors, GMOs, and rBST (a hormone that increases milk production in cows), or are made with all organic ingredients, that doesn’t mean they are healthier than other less-costly yogurts or are healthful in all ways. For instance, though some are indeed low in added sugar, sugar is still often the second ingredient in many of the flavored varieties, amounting to 3 or more teaspoons of sugar per 6 ounces of yogurt.

For the least processed and most healthful of these products, check labels for a short list of ingredients and look for ones that have less added sugar, just as you would when shopping for other yogurts. When comparing products, be aware that single-serving containers keep shrinking—and now vary from a mere 3.5 ounces to 8 ounces.

Also see How to Read a Yogurt Label.