Buying yogurt seems like a relatively straightforward activity. Choosing a healthful one, however, is not quite so simple, considering the seemingly limitless options available at your average supermarket, from fruit-on-the-bottom and blended to squeezable, whipped, and drinkable—and in dozens of flavors. Most are laden with sugar and other ingredients you might not expect in one of humanity’s original “health foods.”
A report from the nonprofit watchdog group Cornucopia Institute noted that manufacturers often mislead consumers into thinking that all yogurts are created equal, though many commercial ones “are essentially junk food masquerading as health food.” That’s why checking container labels, front and back, is a must.
Deciphering the labels
Here are some of the things to watch out for as you compare yogurt options:
Is it loaded with sugar? Yogurt naturally contains the milk sugar lactose. But a lot of sugar (often high-fructose corn syrup) is typically added to make it more palatable for people who don’t like its natural tanginess. If the yogurt is labeled “fruit on the bottom” or “fruit flavored,” has elaborate-sounding flavors (like Boston Cream Pie, Berry Blue Blast, Caramel Macchiato, or Dulce de Leche), or contains toppings like cookie bits, it’s pretty much guaranteed to contain excess sugar and more calories (unless it is sweetened with sugar substitutes, discussed below). A single 6-ounce serving of a sweetened yogurt has about 18 grams of added sugar—more than 4 teaspoons.
For someone consuming 2,000 calories a day, that’s one-third of the daily limit for added sugar recommended by the government’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Sugars like evaporated cane syrup, fruit juice concentrate, “naturally milled” cane sugar, and honey may sound healthier than regular sugar or corn syrup, but they are also just sources of empty calories.
Yoplait has reduced the sugar in some of its yogurts in recent years—though still not enough, we think. New FDA nutrition labels, expected to roll out later this year or next year, will require companies to list the amount of added sugars separate from total sugars, which should motivate more companies to use less sugar.
Does it have real fruit—or is it just "fruit-flavored"? The term “strawberry flavored” or “peach flavored,” for instance, is a good hint that the yogurt contains little, if any, actual fruit. Even if the container depicts plump strawberries, blueberries, peaches, or other luscious-looking fruits, the flavor may come entirely from artificial or natural flavors—plus sugar. Similarly, “fruit on the bottom” yogurts usually have very little fruit.
Does it contain artificial sweeteners? To reduce calories, some yogurts contain artificial sweeteners like acesulfame potassium, aspartame, and sucralose, or “natural” (but still highly processed) sugar substitutes like monk fruit and stevia. The evidence overall suggests that these sweeteners are safe, but if you prefer your yogurt in its more natural state, you’ll want to avoid them. If a yogurt has far fewer calories than its shelf-mates, chances are high it contains some sort of sugar substitute.
Does it have a laundry list of additives? Many ingredients are used for consistency, texture, and stability—including gums, modified corn starch, pectin, milk protein concentrate, and gelatin (vegetarians beware). Some ingredients may have added perks. For instance, inulin, used to boost thickness, also boosts absorption of calcium in the yogurt and is a source of fiber (yogurt does not naturally contain fiber). But large amounts may cause digestive issues in some people. And other ingredients, like carrageenan (another thickener) are of questionable safety.
The Truth About Probiotics in Yogurt
For the live cultures in yogurt to have any effect, they must be alive and present in sufficient numbers.
There may also be added fats (like palm kernel oil), colors (both natural and artificial), vitamins (A, C, D), and potassium sorbate (a preservative). The natural colors carmine and annatto (which give some yogurts their pink-red and yellow-orange hues, respectively) cause allergic reactions in some people.
As with other highly processed foods, some substances used in the production of commercial yogurts, such as dimethylpolysiloxane (a defoamer), are not listed on the labels and are of questionable or unknown safety. Also not indicated on labels: The high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) may be the kind that is higher in fructose (90 percent compared to 55 percent in most HFCS and 50 percent in table sugar); fructose has been linked to more health problems than other forms of sugar, when consumed in high amounts.
Does it trade fat for sugar? Low-fat and nonfat yogurts have less or no fat, but they aren’t necessarily lower in sugar. In fact, some have as many calories as full-fat yogurts due to added sugars. Bear in mind also that some studies suggest that dairy foods, unlike many other sources of saturated fat, may not be bad for the cardiovascular system.
Greek yogurt: healthier, or just thicker?
Traditional Greek yogurt is strained of its whey (the calcium-rich liquid left behind after the milk curdles), resulting in a thicker consistency, more protein, and less milk sugar. Don’t assume that Greek yogurt is a better choice, however. Because it has lost its whey, it has less calcium. And the skyrocketing assortment of Greek yogurts includes many that are just as sugary as the sweetest conventional yogurts.
Consider also that some Greek yogurt is that in name only, since there are no federal regulations mandating how it must be made. Some companies just use additives like milk protein concentrate to mimic a true Greek yogurt in thickness and protein content—and charge extra.
Other options: whipped yogurt, dairy-free yogurt
“Whipped” yogurts incorporate air for a lighter consistency. You get fewer calories simply because there’s less actual yogurt (4 ounces by weight, for example, compared to 6 ounces in a single-serving container). You also get less calcium, protein, and other beneficial nutrients—all for the same (or an even higher) price as regular yogurt.
Nondairy yogurts are made from soy, almonds, coconut, or grains. They can be good choices if you don’t eat dairy; some have live cultures (see box above). But all of the above caveats apply. Nondairy yogurts can, for instance, be just as sugary as conventional yogurts.
Rich in calcium, protein, and other beneficial nutrients, yogurt can be part of a healthful diet—though it’s not a magic elixir for longevity. For the least processed and most healthful ones, look for labels with a short list of ingredients: Milk and live cultures are all you really need. You can add your own fruit or a touch of honey, maple syrup, or other sweetener to plain yogurt—or look for ones with less sugar. Yogurts that are more highly processed may have some attractive ingredients, like vitamin D and inulin, but typically these are accompanied by a long list of less-desirable or unnecessary add-ins, notably sugars and artificial colors, which make them more like dessert than health food.
It’s easy to make your own yogurt. Some recipes entail just heating milk (any percent fat, dairy or non-dairy) to a certain temperature, adding a little plain yogurt, and allowing the mixture to ferment overnight. Others call for using a powdered yogurt starter (available at grocery or health food stores) and an “incubator” (such as a yogurt maker, crock-pot, or simple thermos). You’ll also need a candy or instant-read thermometer, cheesecloth (if you want to further strain the yogurt to make it “Greek”), and jars for storage.
Also see Yogurt: A Calcium Powerhouse.
Published March 28, 2016