I just finished reading the chapter in “What to Eat,” by Marion Nestle titled “Yogurt: Health Food or Dessert?” In that chapter, Dr. Nestle, a Ph.D nutritionist, explains that yogurt has a health food mystique. It appears to be related to the idea that the bacteria used to produce yogurt, such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and L. acidophilus, are good bacteria that bestow health benefits when they replace bad bacteria in the gut. A 2004 research review, “Yogurt and Gut Function,” paid for by the National Yogurt Association, concluded that some people with particular health problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease, ulcers, and allergies, might possibly benefit from the consumption of yogurt.

The mystique (or myth) of yogurt as a health food has been around for quite a while. Indeed, years ago, you could only buy it in health foods stores. Alternatively, you could make it yourself, as many of us did in the hippie years when making your own yogurt was a part of the natural foods movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Now commercially prepared, store-bought yogurt is ubiquitous. In most supermarkets, plastic containers of yogurt take up a substantial portion of the shelf space in the dairy section. Yogurt is big business. It is the fastest growing dairy product in the United States, with production increasing from about 500 million pounds a year in the late 70s to 2.5 billion pounds by 2003.

Many of us eat yogurt because we believe it is good for us. Who doesn’t feel self-righteous when they have a container of yogurt for lunch instead of a burger? Or when we slurp down a frozen yogurt instead of real ice cream? We believe yogurt is simply one of the best things we can eat. We also think it is what we should be feeding our kids.

I made a trip to my local Safeway store today to see for myself what it is we are getting when we buy yogurt in one of its many forms. I was looking for the “Yobaby” yogurt when a young woman, at the store, buying some of this for her toddler, started talking to me. I told her I had just read a great book chapter about yogurt that raised the possibility that this product should be considered a dessert and not a health food. “No,” she sniffed, “You are wrong. Yogurt, particularly ‘Yobaby,’ is an excellent source of calcium, protein, and all sorts of other substances of great nutritional value for children.” She grabbed a couple of 6 packs of fruit-flavored variety and left in a snit. Who was I to question her deeply held belief in yogurt as a health food?

 

Is store-bought yogurt health food or dessert?

So, what exactly is in the yogurt we are buying? Let’s take a look, starting with “Yobaby,” the health food for babies and toddlers. The food label states that “Yobaby” is made from cultured pasteurized organic whole milk. Sounds good? I guess. All real yogurts are made from milk, although not necessarily from organic milk nor from whole milk which is naturally rich in fat content. The package label also says that “Yobaby” is made without the use of antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, or toxic pesticides. All of that is indeed good.

However, the second ingredient listed on the “Yobaby” label is “naturally milled organic sugar”–organic, yes, but sugar nonetheless. Ingredient order on labels is based on how much of the substance is in the food. There are 16 grams of sugars in a 4-ounce container of “Yobaby”. Although some of these sugars are the naturally occurring milk sugars, the label makes it clear that additional sugar has been added. In fact, there is twice as much sugar in “Yobaby” than there is in plain unsweetened yogurt. Is this a health food? Or is it a dessert? No wonder my granddaughters love this stuff!

Danimals, another yogurt product aimed at kids, uses low-fat milk to make the product. I bought Danimals “Surprise Sprinkl’ins.” Surprise is right. After milk, the next four ingredients listed on the label are sugar, fructose syrup, modified corn starch, and high fructose corn syrup. Are you kidding me? This is dessert.

Yoplait Original (I bought the “blackberry harvest” flavor) proclaims that it is 99% fat-free. It has 170 calories in a 6-ounce serving. Fifteen percent are from fat. It also has 27 grams of sugars. The good news is it actually contains blackberries. But it also has high fructose corn syrup, the sweetener used to make CocaCola and other sweetened soft drinks. Health food? Or dessert?

I found a “Weight Watchers” yogurt. Six ounces of this yogurt equals 1 WW point or 100 calories. Milk fat is the first ingredient listed on the label, followed by nonfat milk, fruit base, and crystalline fructose (a sweetener). Hmmm, not too bad. Six ounces of Dannon “Light ‘n Fit” Strawberry Banana yogurt, however, has only 60 calories, 7 grams of sugars (they use sucralose to sweeten it), and no fat. But it also has red 40 (a colorant) and potassium sorbate (for freshness) as well as modified corn starch.

Now if you really want to pig out on health food, you can try the Yoplait Smoothie. A serving is an 8-ounce bottle (a small glassful). It packs 220 calories, 33 grams of sugars, 15 mg of cholesterol, and 15 grams of saturated fat. The label proclaims it to be “the snack that’s both delicious and wholesome!” Wait a minute. A large apple has only 125 calories, no cholesterol, no saturated fat, and no added sugar. Now, that’s a snack that is both delicious and wholesome.

 

Plain old yogurt

Let me finish with a few words about plain yogurt. This is the yogurt Dr. Nestle says she eats. She is right when she says it is hard to find amidst the myriad of sugared, flavored, preserved, and hyped yogurts. In my local Safeway, the plain yogurts were placed in a completely different part of the dairy section—separated from the sweet stuff and by containers of cottage cheese and sour cream. I bought several different kinds. Pavel’s Original Russian yogurt only contains whole milk, living yogurt cultures (good bacteria such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus), and one additive, vitamin D3. Eight ounces (1 cup) has 140 calories and 10 grams of sugars; those that naturally occur in milk, not added as in the case of the sweetened yogurts. Nancy’s nonfat yogurt’s only ingredients are skim milk and nonfat dry milk plus the yogurt bacteria. It has 120 calories per cup, 17 grams of milk sugars, and no fat. Voskos’ Greek Style Yogurt is made from milk and cream as well as nonfat milk. One cup has 260 calories with 180 from fat, but only 8 grams of sugar. It is fat and fattening, but it probably tastes terrific.

So, what’s the take-home message? Plain, unadulterated yogurt might possibly have some health benefits. But when you add sugar, let’s be clear…what you are eating is, in fact, dessert.

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