Yogurt: What’s Healthy & What’s Not
Yogurt often tops the list as a natural food that packs a lot of nutritional value. When produced in its simplest form, which is fermenting good bacteria with milk, yogurt is a great source of protein, B vitamins, calcium, and probiotics (mostly Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, which are both required to make a true yogurt product). The catch: yogurt’s really only good for you when the ingredients are natural, pure, and kept simple. Unfortunately, many of the conventional yogurts fall into the unhealthy category because they contain unnecessary ingredients.
Why Is Conventional Yogurt So Unhealthy?
Many yogurts contain high amounts of added sugar, especially the flavored varieties with granola clusters and the ones with fruit on the bottom. A 6-ounce serving of regular flavored yogurt may contain as much as 35 grams of sugar. That’s more than the recommended daily intake of sugar, which should be less than 30 grams of sugar a day. Consider, too, the drinks and processed foods that are often consumed: juice, soda, dessert, and other foods that are deceptively “healthy” because they too contain a lot of added sugar. At the end of the day, most Americans consume on average 17 teaspoons of sugar or roughly 71 grams of sugar!
It’s important to note that lactose, the naturally occurring milk sugar in yogurt, makes up part of the total sugar content (total sugar includes both natural and added sugar). Most 8-ounce regular yogurts have about 12–15 grams of lactose (natural sugar). An 8-ounce serving of Greek yogurt has less natural sugar (roughly 9 grams) because liquid is strained during production, resulting in some sugar removal, thicker yogurt, and more protein. Skyr, an Icelandic yogurt, is produced with a similar straining process. It’s made with more milk than regular yogurt, has a high protein content, and is low in natural sugar (6 grams per 8-ounce serving).
On top of the high-fructose syrups that are often added, many conventional yogurts also contain artificial colors and sweeteners, preservatives, thickening agents, and milk protein concentrate to increase protein. Some yogurts may be heat-treated after culturing to extend their shelf life, but this process kills off any bacteria and diminishes the point of eating a healthful food filled with live and active cultures. Other yogurts may not even use real fruit at all.
What’s In Healthy Yogurt?
The best yogurt for you is the one that has the least amount of ingredients but also the most natural ingredients. Ideally, the healthiest yogurts contain whole milk and live active cultures (L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus) and do not list sugar in the top ingredients. Look for yogurt made with USDA-certified organic whole milk that comes from 100% grass-fed or pasture-raised cows. Remember, whole milk has more of the healthy beneficial saturated fat that we need versus skim and low-fat milk. (See our WFP YouTube experience at Stryk Jersey Farm to learn more about the health benefits of grass-fed Raw Milk.) Many healthy yogurts also provide the Live and Active Cultures seal to indicate the yogurt contains a high amount of yogurt cultures (e.g., 100 million cultures per gram at the time of production); however, there are also healthy organic options that contain very high amounts of live and active cultures but do not provide the seal. (The seal isn’t mandatory and is provided voluntarily by a company.)
WFP’s Take-Home Advice
- Use the Cornucopia Institute’s yogurt scorecard as a guide when buying healthy yogurts: https://www.cornucopia.org/yogurt-scorecard/. The scorecard includes comprehensive information about yogurt ingredients and rates yogurts so that you know which ones are the healthiest vs. unhealthiest. Many of their top yogurts are found at both natural and conventional grocery stores. WFP recommends:
- Maple Hill Creamery Plain Greek 100% Grass-Fed Organic Whole Milk Yogurt (Whole Foods and other natural health food stores)
- Stonyfield Plain 100% Grass-Fed Organic Whole Milk Yogurt (Whole Foods and other natural health food stores)
- Organic Valley Plain Grassmilk 100% Grass-Fed, No Grain Whole Milk Yogurt (Whole Foods and other natural health food stores)
- Straus Family Creamery Non-GMO Certified Plain Greek Organic Whole Milk Yogurt (Sprouts and other natural health food stores)
- Stonyfield Organic Plain Greek Pasture-Raised Whole Milk Yogurt (HEB and other natural health food stores)
- White Mountain Organic Whole Milk Bulgarian Yogurt (HEB, Randalls, Sprouts, Whole Foods)
- Green Valley Organics Certified-Humane Plain *Lactose-Free Yogurt (HEB and other natural health food stores) *For lactose-intolerant consumers
- Choose yogurts made with organic whole milk and that say, “100% grass-fed or pasture-raised” so that you know the dairy cows are living their lives on grass pastures, not in factory-farm conditions. Grass-fed cows typically eat native grasses and are not fed GMO grains.
- We also recommend choosing plain, unflavored yogurt rather than those that are flavored or have added fruit. Plain yogurts typically do not have added sugar. Add your own toppings of fresh fruit and natural added sugar, such as ½–1 teaspoon of honey or maple syrup. Plain yogurt is also a great substitute for sour cream.
- Avoid store-bought yogurt parfaits; they pack a lot of additional ingredients on top of flavored yogurt, which ultimately drives up the added sugar content.
- Companies must disclose whether they heat-treat their yogurt after the probiotics have been added. Look for labels that state, “heat-treated after culturing,” and avoid these products as the process kills off the beneficial live cultures. Choose the ones that say, “contains active yogurt cultures” or “live active cultures/acidophilus.” Probiotics are good for your digestive system and also help maintain a healthy immune system. Yogurt is a great way to incorporate beneficial bacteria into your diet as is taking a daily probiotic. Our WFP Probiotic Complete is a comprehensive multi-strain formula that includes Saccharomyces boulardii (SB), Lactobacillus, and Bifidobacterium.
Follow these guidelines and remember to always read the nutrition labels carefully to help you choose the healthiest yogurt for you and your family!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 8, 2017 and has since been updated.
Sources and References:
Cornucopia Institute: Cornucopia Yogurt Buyer’s Guide. Retrieved May 4, 2017 from https://www.cornucopia.org/yogurt-scorecard/
National Yogurt Association: Live & Active Culture Yogurt. Retrieved May 9, 2017 from http://www.aboutyogurt.com/live-culture
How to Buy the Healthiest Yogurt. huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved May 4, 2017 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/01/healthy-healthiest-yogurt_n_4302415.html
Jones, T. How to Choose the Best Yogurt for Your Health. authoritynutrition.com. Retrieved May 9, 2017 from https://authoritynutrition.com/best-yogurt-for-health/
SugarScience: The Unsweetened Truth. Retrieved May 9, 2017 from http://www.sugarscience.org