I get so many questions about yogurt – is it healthy or not? Here’s the Yogurt Showdown… everything you want to know (and maybe some things you did not even know you want to know) about choosing yogurt.
While we all know what yogurt is, do you really know what yogurt is?
milk + specific live bacteria culture strains + very low heat = yogurt
There are only 2 ingredients necessary to make yogurt – milk and live cultures. Just as the milk we drink has varying fat levels, so does yogurt. The starting milk is nonfat, reduced/low fat, or full fat. Some yogurt companies add cream to the milk for added fat and a creamier consistency. Depending on the milk used to start will depend on the amount of fat in the finished yogurt product.
Since yogurt is made from milk some people may not tolerate it well. There are 3 components in milk that may not be tolerated.
Lactose is the natural sugar found in milk. The natural fermentation process removes (most) lactose. The brand will depend on how long the yogurt ferments which will dictate how much lactose remains in the yogurt. Therefore, people who are lactose intolerant can still sometimes tolerate yogurt. It also explains why some yogurts are better tolerated than others.
Whey and casein are the proteins found in milk. Some people have difficulty breaking down one or both of these proteins. Greek yogurt has much of the whey removed (see below). However, all yogurt has casein. Depending on if your intolerance is related to lactose, whey, or casein will depend on your yogurt tolerance.
One benefit of yogurt is it’s well known probiotic benefits (read more about probiotics here and here). Simply speaking, probiotics are beneficial bacteria living within the GI tract to aid with normal function of the gut, including digestion and absorption of nutrients.
To make yogurt, these probiotic, live bacteria are added to the starting milk for the fermentation process to begin. These are labeled on the yogurt containers, but some common bacteria found in yogurt are S. therophilus, L. bugaricus, L. casei, L. rhamnosus, L. acidophilus, L. bulgaricus, and so on. A variety of active cultures that are used in the yogurt making process and each company will use different varieties.
Sweeteners are the component that can make or break a yogurt as it relates to health. Plain yogurt does not have any sweeteners added. These have a tart, slightly sour taste which is why it is often be used in place of sour cream. If you expect yogurt to always be sweet, this tart flavor may be off-putting. However the type of sweetener and amount of sweetener will vary greatly and is a deciding factor of it’s considered healthy or not.
Plain yogurt as a way to avoid the sweetener (which is usually an increase of refined carbohydrates that will impact blood sugar and insulin levels). Any flavored yogurt, even vanilla yogurt, has sweetener added to it in some form.
Recently the yogurt industry is making changes to the way they sweeten yogurts, which is a game changer for how we can use yogurt day-to-day.
Sweeteners often used are:
- Cane sugar (increases carbs and calories)
- Brown cane sugar (increases carbs and calories)
- Honey (increases carbs and calories)
- Agave nectar (increases carbs and calories)
- Fructose (the same natural sugar that makes fruit sweet; impacts carbs and calories)
- Sucralose (commercially sold as Splenda; doesn’t impact carbs however not ideal for use)
- Acesulfame potassium (often used in conjunction with other commercial sweeteners)
- Monk fruit
More recently stevia and monk fruit are being used to sweeten flavored yogurt. These are preferred sweeteners because they provide sweetness without the carbohydrates, calories, or chemical based sweeteners that have been used in the past.
Some other ingredients are added to yogurt. Ingredients such as pectin and various types of “gums” are added to enhance the consistency of the yogurt. Additionally, various flavors – vanilla, lemon juice, strawberry, etc. – are be added to change the flavor.
Over the decades food manufacturers have changed the way they produce yogurt. The changes have drastically changed the macronutrients (discussed below). There are basically 3 different types of yogurt.
This is the traditional way of yogurt making – milk, active cultures, sometimes sweetener. The fat content can vary depending on what kind of milk is used to start with. Traditional yogurt typically is higher in carbs with a fair amount of protein. The carbohydrate and sugar content varies depending on if the yogurt is sweetened and what kind of sweetener is added.
Greek yogurt starts the same way as traditional. Just as with traditional yogurt the fat content varies. It then gets strained to allow the natural liquid (whey) in yogurt to be removed. This creates a thicker, creamier, more concentrated yogurt. Greek yogurt is known for being higher in protein. In fact, Greek yogurt has 2-3 times the amount of protein as traditional yogurt. The carbohydrates again can vary depending on if and how it is sweetened.
Icelandic yogurt is like Greek yogurt, with the whey strained. The difference is that Icelandic yogurt is always made with non-fat milk, which leaves you with only carbohydrates and protein.
Calories & Macronutrients
A typical serving size for yogurt is ¾ cup (6 oz.), yet the calories can range between 80-200 calories. The calorie level changes based on how much fat is in the starter milk, how much whey is removed if making Greek or Icelandic yogurt, and if or what kind of sweetener is used.
The carbohydrate content varies depending on the amount of lactose (natural milk sugar) remaining in the milk after the fermentation process, and any sweetener added in the flavoring. The protein is be greater in Greek or Icelandic yogurt than traditional yogurt. The fat content varies depending on the amount to fat found in the starter milk and if any cream is added to create a creamier texture.
If you can tolerate dairy products, yogurt can be a good way to get protein. However, the food industry has done a good job with meeting consumer demands for decreased fat and sugar content. It is important to read the labels to know what you are getting when choosing your yogurt to assure your yogurt meets your needs.
Since yogurts vary so much I put together this chart comparing various yogurts, both plain and vanilla flavored. This allows you to see the difference in calories, carbs, protein, fat, and sweeteners.
Generally speaking, I recommend eating Greek yogurt, as a means to ensure that your protein content is more equally matched to your carbohydrate content. I also typically recommend eating plain yogurt and adding your own sweetener and fruit to it. However, with the food industry stepping up and meeting our needs with sweetening yogurt with stevia and monk fruit, your “approved” yogurt options have gotten a little sweeter. Check out the comparison chart below. Some signs of a good yogurt are:
- has live cultures
- the protein content is no less than half of the carbohydrate content (example, if carbs are 20g, protein should be at least 10g)
- added sweeteners should be only monk fruit or stevia
- calorie content should meet the needs which you are using the yogurt, meaning lower calories (100 calories) for snack and higher calories for meal (closer to 200 calories) with addition of some nuts and fruit
This yogurt comparison chart can serve as a reminder that so many various types of yogurt are different in many ways. It’s up to you to choose what works for you.
Download your comparison chart here.
Great article about the many variations of yogurt. Of special interest to me was the distinction about Icelandic yogurt. While I like the taste of Icelandic yogurt, I find it lacking in fat. I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, so getting enough healthy fat in my diet is a challenge. I spent a lot of time looking for Icelandic yogurt with enough fat. Now, after reading your article, I understand why I never found it. Sometimes, it is the little details (like understanding the nature of Icelandic yogurt) that make the biggest difference in my health. The chart was helpful, too. I saved it to the “Health” folder on my computer. Thank you the article and the chart.
Good thing I love Greek yogurt! I had no idea how much sweetener gets put into flavored yogurt. Thanks for sharing.