Walk down any dairy aisle and your head may spin when you see the ever-expanding yogurt options. Once viewed as a health food, yogurt has gone uber-trendy with a dizzying choice of flavors, textures, styles, milk sources, fat content, and sweeteners.
Yogurt’s nutritional goodness and health halo are at the core of its appeal. According to a news release from AC Nielsen Global Services, yogurt is among the fastest-growing food categories in the world.
Satisfying consumer demand for healthy foods, yogurts are quick, easy, and pleasing to most everyone. Convenient and portable, you can drink it or squeeze it when you are crunched for time or eat it the old-fashioned way with a spoon.
Not All Yogurts Are Nutritional Superstars
But not all yogurts are created equal -- some are more like a dessert than a nutritious snack.
“Various yogurts undermine the nutrient richness with fat and added sugar from sweeteners and additional ingredients like candy and cookies that make it more like candy in a container instead of a valuable dose of dairy,” says New York weight loss expert Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD.
The Truth Lies in the Label
To find the healthiest yogurts low in fat and sugar, be sure to check the Nutrition Facts panel on the package. Keep in mind that the sugar listed on the panel includes added sugars and lactose, which is the natural form of carbohydrate found in milk.
“A serving of plain yogurt contains 8-12 grams of sugar from lactose without any added sugars. Check the ingredient list to see if fruits, fruit juice concentrates, high fructose corn syrup, cane syrup, or other sweeteners are present,” says Taub-Dix, author of Read It Before You Eat It.
Yogurt is often filled with added sugar and can also come with toppings to mix in -- adding even more calories. Natural sugar from fruit is better than other sugars, Taub-Dix says. She recommends choosing the lowest-sugar option or adding your own fruit or high-fiber cereal to plain, nonfat yogurt.
And when it comes to artificially sweetened yogurts, it is a personal choice that can help trim calories but Taub-Dix prefers a more natural approach by adding your own fruit to plain low-fat Greek-style yogurt.
The fat content of yogurt depends on the type of milk, including skim or nonfat, 1%, 2%, whole milk, and whole milk with a splash of cream.
Most nutrition experts recommend nonfat and low-fat yogurts.
Nutritional Benefits of Yogurt
Rich in protein, calcium, B vitamins, and often fortified with vitamin D, yogurt is a nutrient-rich food routinely included on "super food" lists. An average 8-ounce serving contains between 8-12 grams of protein.
An excellent source of calcium, an average 8-ounce container contains one-third of the Daily Recommended Value. Yogurt has slightly more calcium than the same amount of cow’s milk. It is also a good source of potassium, riboflavin, vitamin B12, and phosphorus.
A few servings of low-fat or nonfat yogurt a day helps fill in the calcium, potassium, and vitamin D nutrient gaps most adults and children have in their diets, says Elizabeth Ward, RD, nutrition expert and author of Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating, Before, During and After Pregnancy.
Friendly Bacteria a Bonus
Yogurt’s live and active cultures contribute friendly bacteria that promote digestive health by settling an upset stomach, promoting regularity, and possibly boosting immunity says Jo Ann Hattner, RD, author of Gut Insight.
Look for the "Live and Active Cultures" seal to be sure you are getting yogurts that have not been heat-treated after the fermentation process (similar to beer, wine, and cheese), which kills most of the beneficial active cultures.
People with limited lactose tolerance may tolerate yogurts with live and active cultures because the fermentation process helps to digest some of the lactose, making it more digestible.
Sorting Through the Yogurt Varieties
- Greek yogurt, with its thicker, richer texture, is the latest newcomer garnering lots of attention. Choose nonfat or low-fat Greek style yogurt that contains up to twice the amount of protein and about half the sugar of regular yogurts.
- Sheep milk yogurt is another option claiming to be richer and creamier than cow’s milk yogurt with double the calcium and more protein. Ideal for cooking, it stands up to higher temperatures without breaking down like other yogurts.
- Goat milk yogurt is considered one of the most popular worldwide. Typically made from whole goat milk, it has a softer texture with a slightly sweet and salty flavor. It's lower in calcium and usually higher in fat, but you can lower the fat content by skimming the cream off the top.
- Soy yogurt made from soybeans has no saturated fat or cholesterol, is lower in protein, and is usually fortified with calcium to compete with cow’s milk yogurt.
Best bets, experts say, are plain, low-fat varieties topped with your own fruit, nuts, whole-grain cereal, or granola.
Easy Yogurt Recipes
Choose your favorite variety of lower-fat, low-sugar yogurt, or make your own.
Serve yogurt for breakfast or snacks as a parfait layered with fruit and whole-grain cereal or top it with a touch of honey, pomegranate seeds, and chopped walnuts. Fruit smoothies made with fresh or frozen blueberries, a banana, a few ice cubes, and low-fat plain yogurt is another great snack or on-the-go breakfast.
Boost nutrients in your recipes by substituting equal amounts of nonfat Greek-style yogurt instead of sour cream or mayonnaise in salads, dips, casseroles, and more. Add plain yogurt to marinades to help tenderize meat. Make the Greek sauce Tzatsiki to serve with fish or chicken by adding chopped cucumber and mint to Greek-style plain fat free yogurt.
Sweeten plain low-fat yogurt with crushed pineapple and top it with coconut for a pina colada dessert. Top a baked apple with low-fat yogurt mixed with apple pie spice.
There are so many ways to enjoy yogurt, limited only by your imagination and creativity.
Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.