New products are being introduced into each section of the grocery store year after year based on consumer demand and food companies’ efforts to stay abreast with always changing food and nutrition science and preferences. One aisle of the supermarket that has seen a big uptick in products over the past few years, and one that I get a lot of questions about, is the dairy aisle. The number of different kinds of milk, yogurts, and cheeses is astounding and has many of you curious, and sometimes confused, about what to look for. So, I decided to tackle one of these foods- yogurt- and dive into the nutrition of one of my favorite breakfast and snack options.
At the most basic level, yogurt is a milk-based food made by adding bacterial cultures to liquid milk. Cow’s milk is most commonly used to make yogurt, but it’s not uncommon to see goat or sheep’s milk varieties nowadays. The main bacterial cultures used to make yogurt are Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, which essentially are added to the milk and get to fermenting the lactose (milk sugar) to produce lactic acid. It is lactic acid that gives yogurt its tangy taste and creamy texture.
More recently, you will find traditionally made yogurts alongside the ever more popular Greek style yogurt. Greek yogurt is just regular yogurt strained extensively to remove liquid whey and lactose, giving it a thicker texture. There are a few other nutritonal differences between the two, which I’ll highlight as we go along.
Dietary fat of yogurt
Did you know that foods have a “standard identity”? The FDA has created definitions for what ingredients must be contained in a product and any specific manufacturing requirements to provide transparency to consumers and for standardization across our food supply. Yogurt has its own identity, but interestingly enough it’s recently been called into question. In any case, one of the standards pertains to the level of fat in yogurt, which is laid out as the following:
Full fat yogurt must contain not less than 3.25% milk fat
Lowfat yogurt not more than 2% milk fat
Nonfat yogurt less than 0.5% milk
Some brands may choose to add cream or other sources of fat to their yogurts to change the taste and texture, but this is what you’ll find across most yogurts. When it comes to dietary fat I am so glad we are exiting a “low fat” craze and embracing full-fat products that are becoming more mainstream. Why do many dietitians, myself included, recommend full fat yogurts? Dietary fat provides more calories per gram and thus satisfies your hunger for a longer time. I don’t know about you, but I’d love to not feel hungry only an hour after breakfast!
While most of the fat in yogurt is saturated fat (the type that can impact your cholesterol), if you’re eating a reasonable serving of yogurt the amount isn’t likely to contribute much to your total daily intake. Bottom line, a creamy, full-fat yogurt helps fill you up and provides that luxurious, creamy texture you want in a yogurt.
A powerful protein source
When I talk about building a balanced meal or snack, one of the non-negotiable food groups I mention is protein. Protein, similar to fat, helps to provide you with sustained energy and fullness, and it also powers your muscles to go tackle the day. All yogurt contains protein, but there is a noticeable different between traditional yogurt and Greek yogurt.
Traditional yogurt= 7-8 grams of protein per 5.3 o.z.
Greek yogurt= 14-16 grams of protein per 5.3 o.z.
This is where I love to recommend Greek yogurts or the skyr-style yogurts if people are into them. Yes, the texture is quite a bit thicker (which some people don’t enjoy), but I find them to be less tangy and you truly can’t beat the protein power.
Is yogurt really just dessert?
Without a doubt, the biggest concern patients and friends voice about yogurt is the sugar content. Yes, once upon a time, when low-fat diets were all the rage, sugar was snuck into everything, including most yogurts. Think about it- if companies were removing one thing (fat) they knew they needed to add something else (sugar) to still make a palatable product. And so, the yogurt shelves basically turned into a candy store as far as I’m concerned. Luckily, we’ve turned a corner and lower-sugar options abound, but it still takes some investigative work to understand sugar on the nutrition label, so let’s break it down.
First off, we need to recognize that not all sugar is bad. Yogurt contains lactose, which is natural milk sugar, (a carbohydrate) that cannot be removed. You would drive yourself crazy trying to find a sugar-free yogurt because it simply doesn’t exist! Here’s a look at how sugar shows up on the nutrition facts label (there are many other brands, but there are two I commonly eat):
Fage plain, full-fat yogurt (200g container)-6 g carbohydrate (6 g are from sugar)
Siggi’s plain, 0% fat skyr (150g container)- 6 g carbohydrate (4 g are from sugar)
If your yogurt contains more sugar than what you see above then you know that sugar has been ADDED in some form, either through natural fruit, fruit concentrate, fruit puree, cane sugar, or fructose. Telling the difference between this added vs. naturally occuring sugar will be a heck of a lot easier when the new nutrition label goes into effect that spells out “added sugars” on it's own line- hurray!
What about the flavored yogurts that have no sugar added? Well, that’s true, there is no caloric sugar added to those varieties, but to make them palatable without increasing the sugar content they usually have added artificial sugars which show up with names like stevia, sucralose, or monk fruit.
When it comes to the sugar content, I mostly recommend sticking with a plain, unflavored variety and adding your own fresh fruit for sweetness and extra fiber. After that, for me personally, I’d choose a pre-flavored yogurt (I’ll share my favorite brands a bit later on) that uses added natural sugars because I am very sensitive to the taste of artificial sweeteners and don’t like them much at all. I also know that my overall added sugar intake in a day is quite low, so a sweetened yogurt isn’t going to be something to stress over.
‘Gurt is good for your gut
Okay, so we know yogurt has some fat, protein, and sugar, which you can argue has given yogurt a bad rap over the years in their own way, but one thing you can’t argue is the probiotic benefit of yogurt. Remember how I said yogurt was made by adding live bacteria to milk? Well, it turns out these bacteria, called probiotics, have amazing benefits when consumed. Probiotics found in yogurt are most well known for helping ease digestive distress (IBS, bloating diarrhea, ulcerative colitis), but they also may help support your immune system, reproductive tract, oral cavity, lungs, skin, gut-brain axis, and glucose metabolism.
As I mentioned before, the two main probiotics in yogurt are Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, so these should be present in any yogurt product. Some brands take gut health to the next level and have even more strains added such as, B. lactis, L. acidophilus, L. delbrueckii subsp. lactis., L. casei. Each specific species and strain of bacteria may have specialized health benefits, but truthfully the research is still pretty new on their mechanisms of action. To sum things up, the added bugs in your yogurt are good for your gut bugs and overall health!
Kefir, the “other yogurt”
If you’re into all things gut-health, tangy, and delicious but are getting a bit bored of yogurt by the spoonful you may want to try kefir. Kefir is like a drinkable yogurt, but instead of being made through a heating process, all you need to do is add kefir grains (don’t worry, they’re gluten free) to a cup of milk and let them ferment for about 24 hours. The bacteria and yeast of the kefir grains ferment the milk and create a drink with all the probiotic benefits of traditional yogurt. For a comprehensive read on kefir and tips on how to make your own, check out this great article.
How am I doing? Have I satisfied all your yogurt curiosities?
In my next post I’ll share with you my favorite yogurts, and even some recommendations for dairy-free yogurts I’ve given a taste test, so stay tuned!