Yogurt can be incredibly healthy, rich in high-quality protein, beneficial probiotics, calcium, B vitamins and, even cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). But the key words are “can be.”
Most yogurts sold in US grocery stores resemble dessert more than a health food. Americans are accustomed to added sugar and flavors in their yogurt, which negates much of its health potential. Around the world, however, yogurt is often enjoyed in its traditional – and far better for you – form.
Savory Yogurt Is Popular Around the Globe
Sugar-sweetened, fruit-flavored yogurts are among the most popular in the US, but in other countries, you'll find yogurt paired with garlic, cumin, olive oil, and lemon. Around the world, plain yogurt, in all of its sour glory, is often served as a regular side dish with meals.
It's used as a base for dressings and sauces on meats and vegetables alike, and in Mongolia, where some families lead nomadic lifestyles, it's even dried until it hardens into a mass, making it a nutrient-dense food that can be carried with them.
Cheryl Sternman Rule, the author of “Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World's Creamiest Healthiest Food,” wrote in the Washington Post:
“When I whisk garlic into yogurt, I'm hardly a renegade. After all, the two foods pair frequently in such dishes as Greek tzatziki and Turkish ali nazik kebab, char-grilled eggplant, and lamb sauced with garlicky yogurt.
And garlic isn't the only yogurt booster, of course. In Lebanon, labneh — that super-strained, lightly salted version — gets dusted with za'atar and drizzled with olive oil, no sugar bowl in sight. In South Asia, roasted cumin is as common a feature in the region's raitas as it is in its cooling, savory lassis.”
In the US, savory yogurt is beginning to catch on. It's not unusual to find Greek yogurt dips and salad dressings, for instance, even at conventional grocery stores. However, according to a 2014 report by market research firm Mintel, sweet, fruit-flavored yogurts still dominate the market. Sternman Rule continued:
“Of the top 10 yogurts and yogurt drinks launched between 2010 and 2014, seven were fruit flavored, with plain (at number 3), vanilla (number 4), and honey (number 9) filling out the ranks.”
The Largest Category of Yogurt Consumers Do So for Health Reasons
Ironically, the Mintel report found the largest percentage of yogurt consumers (44 percent) eat yogurt for health reasons, and because they believe yogurt is a healthy choice compared to other options.
This is ironic because most US yogurt is far from a health food. If you're eating yogurt to help optimize your gut flora, for instance, chances are you're currently eating yogurt that has more similarities with candy than anything else, courtesy of its added sugar content.
When Yoplait yogurt was created in 1999, for instance, it contained 100 percent more sugar per serving than the company's Lucky Charms cereal! Yet everyone recognized yogurt as a wholesome food, and sales of Yoplait soared.
Even today, one six-ounce container of Yoplait yogurt may contain 26 grams of sugar (for the red raspberry flavor, for example). Earlier this year, in an effort to give their brand a healthier image, General Mills announced it would slash the sugar in Yoplait Original by 25 percent. But even with the reduction, it will still be close to 20 grams of sugar in one container.
The negative effects from sugar content far outweigh the marginal benefits from the minimal amount beneficial bacteria they contain. Remember, the most important step in building healthy gut flora is avoiding sugar, as that can cause disease-causing microbes to crowd out your beneficial flora.
Many other yogurts contain artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, and additives, yet masquerade as health food. Mark A. Kastel, co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, which released the Yogurt Report last year, said:
“What is most egregious about our findings is the marketing employed by many of the largest agribusinesses selling junk food masquerading as health food, mostly aimed at moms, who are hoping to provide their children an alternative, a more nutritious snack. In some cases, they might as well be serving their children soda pop or a candy bar with a glass of milk on the side.”