Yogurt lovers have more choices than ever.
by Corinne Garcia
If you were scanning the dairy case 10 years ago, you would have been lucky to find more than a few brands of yogurt. Today the choices are overwhelming. Alongside a wide variety of cow milk yogurts, there is a huge selection of other kinds, from goat milk to Greek. Why the rising popularity?
The health benefits provided by this nutrient-rich cultured food are numerous. But it’s the “good,” probiotic bacteria present in yogurt that puts the “super” in this digestion-supporting superfood—and explains why it’s becoming an American dietary staple.
People host an incredible amount of bacteria. “We have over 500 different types of bacteria in the human body,” explains Ana Luque, nutritionist and author of The Yogurt Diet (Salud Life). “The bacteria in our intestines produces enzymes to break down food and extract or convert some of the vitamins and minerals we eat.”
Originally from Spain, Luque was raised on a Mediterranean diet that consisted of fruits and vegetables, raw honey, fresh herbs, olive oil, whole grains, fish, organic fresh meats—and a lot of yogurt. “The Mediterranean diet is so popular now, and they always forget to mention the amount of yogurt we eat in that region,” she notes. “On top of the calcium, it has the probiotics component to it, which is the heart and soul of the metabolism.”
Yogurt containers promote the active cultures, the bacteria, inside. But if we already have microbes in our intestines, why do we need more? “Yogurt is food for bacteria, it enhances your good bacteria,” explains Donna Schwenk, author of Cultured Food Life (Balboa Press). “When you have the right kinds of colonies inside you and enhance it through yogurt, it diminishes the bad ones that lead to illness.”
Schwenk says that yogurt works like a protective barrier and keeps the good bacteria in balance, while the enzymes work as a pre-digestive. “It’s a thousand times easier for the body to digest because the body doesn’t have to produce the enzymes to break it down,” she says. “Everything the body needs is in the yogurt, so the body doesn’t have to use its own resources.”
Beneficial bacteria and enzymes aren’t the only reasons to eat yogurt. Milk-based yogurts are rich in calcium, protein, vitamins B-2 and B-12, potassium and magnesium. Whey, the liquid found on top of the container, is full of protein (and should be stirred right back in instead of being drained off).
Plant-based yogurts are also becoming popular for vegans and those with milk allergies, but even some people with dairy allergies can tolerate milk-based yogurt. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI, acaai.org), milk is one of the most common food allergens in children, although 80% of these kids grow out of it by age 16. Although most yogurts are made from cow milk, the ACAAI states that approximately 75% of those with milk allergies can tolerate products such as yogurt that are made from heated milk. And because the bacteria eats away most of the milk sugar, people who are lactose intolerant can typically enjoy yogurt as well. (Always consult your healthcare practitioner if you have dairy-related health issues before adding yogurt to your diet.)
Here are some yogurt types that are widely available:
Cow Milk Yogurt
Still the most popular yogurt variety. Ashley English, blogger and author of Home Dairy (Lark Crafts), says making your own is as simple as heating up milk, adding culture and letting it ferment. The bacteria in the culture eat milk sugar, which produces yogurt’s sour taste. When deciding among commercial varieties, “choose organic milk to guarantee that you’re not getting the hormones, and that you’re getting a clean product,” English says. “Also look out for those with too much added sugar.”
Kitchen Tips: “I’m a big advocate of getting plain yogurt and sweetening it to my likening,” English says. She recommends adding agave, fruit jams, fresh seasonal fruit, applesauce, freshly ground nutmeg, apple butter or pumpkin butter to create your own unique flavor combinations.
Goat Milk Yogurt
Goat milk is easier to digest for the human body says English, who adds that it can be a great substitute for those with mild dairy sensitivities. “It’s more aligned with the proteins we are used to digesting,” she notes. She claims that people have been exposed to goat’s milk for a longer period of time because it comes from our hunter-gatherer days before we settled on farms with cows.
Schwenk adds that goat’s milk is also very similar to human milk in makeup. It has different flavor profile than cow milk, with more of the savory quality known as umami.
Kitchen Tips: Goat milk yogurt can be used exactly like the cow milk type, sweetened with anything listed above. Also use it in place of sour cream in dips and sauces or dolloped on top of Mexican dishes.
Greek yogurt is fast becoming a prominent force in the yogurt market; the research firm Sanford C. Bernstein reports that what used to make up 1% of total yogurt sales in 2007 now makes up more than 35%. Why the surge? “Greek yogurt has a higher protein content, fewer carbohydrates and it’s delicious,” Luque says. It is strained more than traditional yogurt, creating a thicker texture that clings to the spoon. Greek yogurt also has less calcium than that made from cow milk, but still enough to be considered a good source. Luque recommends finding an organic Greek yogurt that’s hormone- and antibiotic-free.
Kitchen Tips: “I use it as a treat and put honey and fruit in it; it’s creamy and pudding-like,” Luque says. Schwenk uses Greek yogurt in many recipes in place of sour cream, such as in an onion dip. Because of the thick consistency, it holds up well under heat and can be used to create a creamy soup base.
Many yogurt brands offer soy-based options as a vegan or dairy allergy-tolerant alternative. Adding live cultures to protein-packed soymilk makes soy yogurt, but it often has added sugars or sweeteners as well. “Soy naturally doesn’t have as many sugars as regular milk unless it’s added,” Schwenk explains, and it’s almost impossible to find it plain. Make sure to buy organic soy yogurt for non-GMO soybeans, Luque says, and check the labels for additives. “When you start getting into all these names you can’t recognize, to me it stops being yogurt,” she says.
Kitchen Tips: Soy yogurt is a tasty addition to a vegan smoothie, and can be a dessert or treat alternative, served with fresh fruit or a small scoop of jam.
Made from coconut milk, coconut yogurt is another plant-based source of probiotics for vegans and those with dairy allergies. A thickening agent is typically added during the yogurt-making process because coconut milk is thin, and Luque describes the flavor as slightly sour, so flavoring is typically added as well. Therefore, it’s important, as with soy yogurt, to check the list of additives. “Coconut yogurt is fabulous for people who are looking to replenish bacteria in the intestinal tract but don’t want to consume animal products,” Luque says. “It’s also good for kids with ADD or autism, who typically can’t process milk protein.”
Kitchen Tips: Use coconut yogurt in smoothies or as a mid-day snack alternative to junk food.
Kefir is a drinkable form of cultured milk, with store-bought varieties that come in a number of flavors. But it has a different fermentation process, and thus a different probiotic make-up than yogurt. Kefir is fermented with a wide variety of bacteria along with yeast that’s not present is traditional yogurt. This beneficial yeast is believed to clear the body of harmful yeasts and adds a slight fizziness to the beverage. Schwenk says that kefir contains more strains of good bacteria than yogurt, but that one is not better than the other. Instead, they work well together. “Kefir is the colony that finds a place to live in the intestines and stays there,” Schwenk explains. “Yogurt is the food for those colonies and the bacteria already living in there. They are both good and both important.”
Kitchen Tips: Schwenk uses her own homemade kefir, which tends to be on the sour side, for anything from dips and salad dressings to pumpkin pudding. She also uses it regularly in smoothies.
Kefir Waldorf Salad
1/2 cup green (kiwi/passionfruit-flavored) or plain kefir with 1/8 cup pomegranate juice mixed in
2 tbsp mayonnaise
3 large apples, such as Gala
2 ribs celery (with leaves), sliced into
1/2” thick pieces (leaves chopped)
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped
1/4 cup goji berries (optional)
1 head Boston lettuce, trimmed, washed and dried
1. Whisk the kefir and mayonnaise in a small bowl.
1. Halve, core and chop the apples into 3/4” pieces, leaving the skin intact.
Place the apples, celery and raisins in another bowl.
Pour the dressing over the apple mixture and toss to coat.
3. Toss salad with nuts and goji berries (if using).
Divide the lettuce leaves among four salad plates; place salad on the lettuce and serve.
Serves: 4. Analysis per serving using low-fat kefir: 265 calories, 5.5g protein,
12g fat (>1 saturated), 6.5g fiber, 37.5g carbohydrate, 99 mg sodium
Recipe credit: Donna Schwenk, www.culturedfoodlife.com
1 cup frozen peaches
1 carrot, chopped
1 cup yogurt or kefir
3 strawberries, tops included
1/2” slice fresh ginger
Honey or stevia, to taste
1. Place all ingredients in blender and process until well blended.
Serves: 1. Analysis per serving using low-fat yogurt: 259 calories, 15g protein,
4g fat (2 saturated), 4g fiber, 41g carbohydrate, 213 mg sodium
Recipe credit: Donna Schwenk, www.culturedfoodlife.com
4 medium cucumbers, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 cups plain yogurt
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
2 tbsp fresh mint, chopped
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp honey
1/2 lemon, juiced
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp cracked black pepper
1. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
Puree in batches in a food processor or blender until uniformly smooth.
Serves: 4. Analysis per serving using low-fat yogurt: 178 calories, 7.5g protein,
9g fat (2 saturated), 1g fiber, 17g carbohydrate, 490 mg sodium
Recipe credit: Home Dairy by Ashley English
(Lark Crafts, www.larkcrafts.com)