One of my readers has asked me to write about yogurt. Since there are so many types to choose from, it can be really confusing.
So, what is yogurt exactly? Yogurt is a semi-solid food produced from the fermentation of milk by bacteria. The milk is heated and then cooled to about 109-115°F (43-46°C), at which point the bacteria is introduced and the fermentation process begins. The bacteria produce lactic acid and the resulting sour yogurt is born. Sugar is often added in order to decrease its sour taste...but many people like it just how it is. Yogurt has been around for centuries, but it has been gaining more and more popularity over the past couple of decades.
Potential health benefits of eating yogurt
Aside from its delicious taste (in my opinion) and its ability to satiate my appetite at times, yogurt also offers some potential benefits to health.
(1) Nutrient dense. Since it is made from milk, yogurt is a great source of many nutrients, including calcium, protein, B12, riboflavin, phosphorus, and potassium. Some yogurt is also a good source of Vitamin D, but not all, because it is not required to be made from Vitamin D fortified milk.
(2) Probiotics. As mentioned above, yogurt also contains bacterial culture (probiotics). Probiotics have many potential health benefits when consumed, including improved digestive health, reduction of LDL (also referred to as "bad cholesterol"), and improved oral health. But, the health benefits are associated with different bacterial species and in certain amounts. And these health benefits may not always apply to yogurt consumption, because yogurt is often pasteurized after the probiotics are added, which kills the bacteria. Therefore, if you are eating yogurt because of the bacteria, it is best to choose one with active or live cultures.
(3) Reduction in blood pressure. One large study has shown a link between regular yogurt consumption and prevention of high blood pressure: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120919190600.htm. Another study has found a link between consumption of probiotics (in yogurt or supplements) and a reduction in blood pressure. The association was stronger when more than one species was taken and in people who had higher blood pressure to begin with (read more here: http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/early/2014/07/21/HYPERTENSIONAHA.114.03469.abstract). But, there are also studies showing no impact of yogurt on blood pressure.
(4) Bone heath and osteoporosis. We've often heard that milk is good for our bones. Why is that? Well milk and yogurt contain calcium and calcium is needed to help with bone remodelling (the continuous removal of mature bone tissue and replacing it with new one). Other nutrients involved with this are vitamin D, magnesium, phosphorus and vitamin K. Incidentally, weight bearing physical activity (like walking) is also important in preventing bone loss.
Potential adverse effects
For people with lactose intolerance or milk allergy, yogurt can be potentially harmful. There is no cure for a milk protein allergy except to avoid eating any foods with milk in it. However, with lactose intolerance, people lack the enzyme (lactase) that breaks down lactose (the sugar found in milk). People with lactose intolerance can often (but not always) tolerate yogurt, because the probiotics help to break down the lactose. Another option for people with lactose intolerance is to buy lactose-free yogurt or take the lactase enzyme (in a chewable pill format).
Something else that people don’t often think about when it comes to yogurt is the added sugars, which can be quite substantial. Plain yogurt does not contain added sugar. Does that mean you should never eat flavoured yogurt? Noooooo! It’s all about awareness and moderation...and your own preferences.
Things to consider when choosing a yogurt
(1) Greek vs regular. Greek yogurt is made the same way as regular yogurt, but is then strained extensively. The end product is lower in carbohydrate (lactose) and higher in protein and fat than regular yogurt. It is also thicker, so has a different mouth-feel and tastes a little different. The first time I had it, I hated it (but I grew to love it). So the choice is yours...and might depend on many things, including how you are using it (to eat vs as a replacement to sour cream), your health goals (for example, are you looking to add more protein to your meal/snack?) and what you feel like eating at that moment in time.
(2) Active probiotics. As mentioned above, probiotics are killed in yogurt because of the pasteurization process. So, if having a yogurt with probiotics in it is important to you, be sure to buy one that says it contains active or live bacterial cultures.
(3) Flavoured vs plain. This is a tricky one. Yogurt is sour. Many people prefer sweet taste over sour, so manufactures add sugar (up to 5-6 teaspoons per serving) to their yogurts when they flavour it. The only type of yogurt without sweetener is plain yogurt. However, not all sweetened yogurt has sugar added; sometimes it is sweetened with Splenda, Stevia, Aspartame or other non-nutritive sweeteners. I usually (but not always) buy plain and add my own fruit or sugar (I like to add frozen blueberries or a little maple syrup). Again, it’s all about personal preference. I will tell you that it took awhile for me to get accustomed to plain yogurt but now I find flavoured yogurt to be way too sweet for my taste.
(4) Fat content. The fat content of a yogurt (or any milk product) can be found right on the front and is listed as a %MF. Fat free is 0%MF and yogurt tends to range from 0-10%MF. There has been some research to show that full fat dairy doesn’t have the same impact on cholesterol levels as was once thought. For me, part of the problem with fat free yogurt (besides the taste) is that I just don’t find it to be as satisfying as a 2%...or 9% yogurt. Thickeners (ie gelatin, locust bean gum, starch, guar gum and pectin) are often added to fat-free yogurt to give it a creamy texture.
(5) Organic. What's the deal with organic yogurt? Is it more nutritious? Well, there is no evidence to support that. However, it does ensure that there are no antibiotics or hormones in there. One thing though...antibiotics given to cows have not been shown to have negative long-term effects for humans.
Choosing a yogurt should not be a stressful process, although many people have confided to me that it is. These days there are so many choices available that it can become a bit overwhelming. I hope that this post has helped you understand a bit more what the options are all about. I would suggest that when you head to the store, you have a couple of priorities in mind so that you can focus your search. Maybe it is about price, or taste or probiotics or protein or sugar...or something else. This should make it a lot easier to choose the right yogurt for you.