The yogurt aisle can be confusing. With options ranging from Greek, regular, non fat, full fat, and multiple dairy alternatives, figuring out the healthiest option can be challenging. When choosing a yogurt, start by looking at the nutrition facts label. Things to look at on the label include the ingredients, added sugars, protein, fat, and calcium. There are a lot of yogurt variations available, so it is important to review the nutrition facts label carefully.
In order to make yogurt, lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus are added to milk to produce lactic acid. Other probiotic cultures can also be added to yogurt including lactobacillus acidophilus, lactobacillus subsp. casei, and bifidobacteria. When choosing a healthy yogurt, I recommend looking for yogurts that only include milk, and these active cultures, since that is all that is needed to make yogurt.
While the ingredients to make regular yogurt and Greek yogurt are the same, the straining process is different. When Greek yogurt is strained, the liquid whey is strained off of it, which is why Greek yogurt is a lot thicker than regular yogurt.
All milk contains natural sugar from lactose and therefore yogurts will not be sugar free. However, a lot of yogurts contain added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of added sugars consumed per day to about 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men. Added sugars are often added to products during processing, and it is important to look for and try to avoid added sugars when looking for a healthy yogurt. Many ingredients mean added sugar. Some ingredients to look out for on labels include syrups, brown sugar, cane sugar, dextrose, honey, nectars, cane juice, evaporated corn sugar, glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltose, molasses and granulated sugar. The dietary guidelines 2015-2020 recommend getting less than 10% of calories from added sugars. Some yogurts use artificial sweeteners to keep the added sugar content down. There is mixed research on artificial sweeteners, and as a result I recommend avoiding them as often as possible.
Since milk is one of the ingredients used to make yogurt, dairy yogurts are a good source of protein. Due to the way traditional Greek yogurt is processed, traditional Greek yogurt will be higher in protein than regular yogurt. As discussed earlier, the only ingredients needed to make yogurt are milk and live active cultures. Some companies add thickeners or protein to yogurts to make them Greek style.
The fat in the yogurt is dependent upon the type of milk the yogurt is produced from. Some people prefer full fat yogurt, while some prefer non fat. While in the past we were taught to avoid full fat dairy, recent research is suggesting that full fat dairy has benefits.
For example, a 2016 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that women who had high fat dairy had a decreased risk of becoming overweight or obese. However the 2015-2020 dietary guidelines still recommends limiting saturated fat and saturated fat is found in dairy. The dietary guidelines recommend keeping saturated fat to less than 10% of calories/day, and choosing nonfat and lowfat dairy products. As you can see, there is a lot of mixed research on the topic of fat and there is still more research that has to be done. As a dietitian, I recommend evaluating the rest of your diet when deciding if you should choose non fat or full fat dairy products. If you are someone who does not eat a lot of fat from other sources, then there could be room for full fat dairy in your diet.
Yogurt is a good source of calcium, since milk is one of its main ingredients. While Greek yogurt is still a good source of calcium, it contains less calcium than regular yogurt due to the straining process.
If you prefer sweeter yogurt, try using fresh or frozen fruit to sweeten plain yogurt. A nutrition tip I give my clients is defrosting frozen berries (the berries being the only ingredient in the frozen package) and adding the defrosted berries to plain yogurt. When frozen fruit defrosts, it gets syrupy and can add extra sweetness and flavor.
My personal favorite yogurt is plain 0% Greek Yogurt. Pair it with fresh fruit and granola for a balanced breakfast. Enjoy!
Linzy Ziegelbaum, MS, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and owner of the private practice LNZnutrition LLC. She provides nutrition counseling and education to clients of all ages with many nutrition needs. Linzy enjoys sharing her love and nutrition expertise with others through counseling, her LNZnutrition blog and social media pages, including Facebook and Instagram.
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