Yogurt: Are we destroying the benefits?

Yogurt is a classic health food. It's often the perfect snack to refuel us mid-afternoon and it can be one of the few snacks we feel good feeding our children--and they actually enjoy eating! With the array of delicious fruit or dessert flavours on the market, it can serve as a guilt-free treat to satisfy our sweet tooth.

What's so great about yogurt?

  • Yogurt has a higher ratio of calcium than the same amount of milk
  • Yogurt is a good source of potassium and vitamins D & B12
  • Yogurt's carb-protein ratio prevents sugar from entering the bloodstream too rapidly
  • Yogurt is a good source of protein; because the yogurt is cultured, the protein is "predigested" making it easier for the body to digest
  • Yogurt's probiotics help the body by eating most of the lactose in dairy making it easier to digest than milk (some people with lactose-intolerance can still eat yogurt)
  • Yogurt's probiotics maintain the bowel's healthy bacteria in order to aid in digestion and reduce bowel and colon related issues
  • Yogurt's probiotics can help boost the immune system
  • Yogurt's probiotics can decrease yeast infections

So what's the problem?

Unfortunately, the health benefits of yogurt are often reduced or even destroyed by the unnecessary ingredients added to the yogurt.

  • Yogurts often contain added sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup; fruit-on-the-bottom flavours are often made from fruit concentrates, not real fruit and vanilla flavours are often higher in sweeteners than fruit flavours. Most people realize that a diet high in sugar is bad for your health in general; but most people don't realize that sugar actually promotes bad bacterial growth and can negate all the benefits of the probiotics! So don't waste your money by purchasing yogurts that will actually suppress your immune system and promote bacterial growth in your body.
  • Fruit flavoured yogurts often contain artifical colouring; often the exact type of dye is not listed on the label and with the concerns of artificial food dyes causing cancer and other serious health issues, I would steer clear of these as much as possible
  • Probiotics vary in type and amount and companies don't always list what kind they've added into their yogurt; different types of probiotics have not been researched and so the health benefits that they are claiming may not even be known yet, which is why you should be skeptical about health claims. Just plain ol' yogurt has enough benefits!
  • Because of the way commercial yogurt is made, there are often various starches and other thickeners/stabilizers used to make it thick and creamy; although these aren't always bad for our health, they do "take up space" in our yogurt and leave less room for the good things like calcium, protein, etc. If you've ever made homemade yogurt, you'll know that you don't need any thickeners to get it nice and thick and creamy. So even a commercial yogurt made well shouldn't need thickeners.

What should I look for on labels?

Ideally, the best yogurt is a plain yogurt that contains only milk and live & active cultures. Plain yogurt is not only the best option nutritionally, but it is also the most versatile. You can add your own fruit and/or sweeteners (try honey, agave or even maple syrup) and by doing so, you can control the amount of sugar you are adding. Plain yogurt is also a substitute for mayo, sour cream etc. in dips and can even be used in baking (I make brownies with yogurt!). If you find plain yogurt too "sour," you can try making your own--the longer it cultures, the more tart it gets. So by making your own yogurt you can control the amount of tartness by controlling the length of time the yogurt cultures.

*As a side note, I have only ever given my daughter plain yogurt so she has nothing to compare it to, and therefore loves it! Occasionally I add in my own fruit puree for something special. My hubby also eats plain yogurt with his granola; I, however, need to add something to mine to enjoy it.

If you're still not willing to give up your favourite flavoured yogurt, look at the labels and try finding another brand that offers flavour without using a lot of artificial ingredients and fillers.

Here are some things to look for:

  • "Live and active bacterial cultures" on the ingredients list is enough to tell you there's probiotics. You can basically ignore anything with health claims, as it's purely marketing. Yogurt at it's purest will always have probiotics and will always be good for bowel health. Don't pay more for the brands (like Activia) that try to market the benefits as something new and better.
  • The naturally occurring lactose in yogurt will account for about 12g of sugar (in 8oz serving); more sugar means added sweeteners so compare labels and try to find the one with the lowest amount. Women should only consume 40g or less of sugar per day and some yogurts reach that amount in just one serving. Also, avoid high-fructose corn syrup at all costs!
  • The yogurt should contain at least 20% of your daily calcium and 6g of protein; if there is less of either of these, the yogurt has been "watered down" by additional sweeteners and fillers
  • Try to choose yogurts that don't go much above 180 calories per cup (8oz); the milk itself accounts for just over 80 calories and extra ingredients shouldn't add up to more than another 100 calories
  • Some guidelines say to choose yogurts with only 1.5g of fat; however, it will depend on the kind of milk used--whole milk will have about 4g of fat in a serving of yogurt, so don't choose anything higher than that. I buy whole yogurt because my daughter needs the extra fat and we don't generally have a high fat diet in our home so having whole yogurt is not one of my concerns.
  • Be cautious about low-fat, fit, etc. as there is often added sweeteners and sodium added to make up for the loss of fat.

In our house, I use yogurt for so many things now that I buy a big 1.8kg container or make it myself each week (which saves me a lot of money). Here are some of the things I use yogurt for:

  • frozen yogurt; just blend yogurt with frozen fruit
  • mix with dill for fish
  • use in place of some/all of mayo or sour cream in dips (mmm... tzatziki)
  • mix with various spices and add to chicken/tuna salad for sandwiches, wraps, etc.
  • baking; cookies, brownies, muffins