Some yogurt decisions are based on your palate — whether you prefer a whipped or creamy texture, a thick or thin consistency, fruit on the bottom or mixed throughout. But the nutritional value of yogurt is more objective. If you’re seeking a yogurt for a specific health reason, perhaps because it’s high in protein and calcium or filled with probiotics, you’ll have to resort to some close label reading.
Before you compare the nutritional information between yogurts, check the Nutrition Facts panel for the serving size. Most yogurts are 150 grams, but some are 125 grams, 170 grams or 225 grams, so keep that in mind when you comparison shop. Beyond that, here are some factors to consider.
Nutrition researchers use a food classification system called Nova to segment foods based on how processed they are, and yogurts can be found in both the least processed and the most ultra-processed categories, depending on how they’re made. This classification is important because research shows that people who eat the most ultra-processed foods have an increased risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. And on average, Americans already get 57.9 percent of calories from ultra-processed foods.
Plain, unflavored yogurt has two ingredients: milk and bacterial culture. Fermenting milk to create plain yogurt is considered a minimal way to process food. When you take plain yogurt and add sugar, artificial sweeteners, thickeners and color, it becomes an ultra-processed food — with flavors that include cotton candy and key lime pie.
If you are choosing yogurt based on health value, then, stick with any plain, unflavored, traditional, Greek or skyr yogurt instead of a flavored, ultra-processed one. I’m especially not a fan of “light” yogurts, in which sugar is replaced by artificial sweeteners and fat is replaced with gums and thickeners.
Greek or traditional
In terms of sales, Americans are divided almost evenly between Greek yogurt (45 percent of yogurt sales) and thinner traditional yogurt (42 percent). Greek yogurt is thick, rich and tart, reminiscent of sour cream. Nutrition-wise, Greek (or the similar Icelandic) yogurt is the better choice because it has double the protein and half the sugar of traditional yogurt. That’s because Greek yogurt is strained at least twice, so liquid whey and lactose (sugar) are skirted away, while the protein becomes more concentrated. One hundred and fifty grams of Greek yogurt has 14 to 16 grams of protein, compared with six to seven grams in traditional plain yogurt.
Some cheaper “Greek-style” yogurts skip this vital double straining step and use thickeners instead. These products are easy to spot when grocery shopping: They are lower in protein and will contain ingredients such as gelatin or guar gum. They are not as creamy but do cost less, if that’s important to you.
Some calcium is lost in the straining process, so a serving of Greek yogurt provides about 15 percent of the daily value for calcium. The same amount of traditional plain yogurt contains closer to 30 percent of your daily calcium needs.
Milk naturally contains sugar, so plain unsweetened Greek yogurt will have four or five grams of naturally occurring sugar, while traditional yogurt has about 10 grams per 150 grams. When health professionals recommend getting less sugar, they are not talking about this natural sugar; they are referring to added sugars.
Whether you choose vanilla, strawberry cheesecake or orange cream, all flavored yogurts contain added sugars, artificial sweeteners or both. Brands may contain between one to four teaspoons (four to 16 grams) of added sugar per 150-gram serving, and it may come from granulated sugar, corn syrup or the healthier-sounding (but totally misleading) organic evaporated cane juice. To be clear, they are all added sugars, and there isn’t a “healthier” one when you consume any of them.
It’s becoming easier to tell how much sugar is naturally occurring and how much is added, because the new Nutrition Facts table lists added sugars separately. Choose a brand with the least amount of added sugar. Yogurts with “less sugar” are also available, but read labels carefully. Some brands truly use less sugar so the yogurt is not as sweet, while others mix a small bit of sugar with artificial sweeteners such as sucralose and acesulfame potassium, but still taste super-sweet.
Some brands add no sugar at all and rely solely on artificial sweeteners. Is it better if the sweetness comes from sugar vs. artificial sweeteners? One could argue both sides. Adding either will create an ultra-processed food, and both are likely fine when consumed in moderation but possibly troublesome when consumed in excess. Some people find that artificial sweeteners have a bitter aftertaste. Ultimately, follow your taste buds.
Both Greek and traditional yogurt generally come in nonfat (0 percent fat), low-fat (2 percent) or whole (5 percent) milk options. For 150 grams of yogurt, there’s 0 grams of fat in nonfat yogurt; three grams or more in low-fat, and seven grams of fat or more in whole-milk (5 percent) yogurt. There’s saturated fat in yogurt too — at least two grams in low-fat and five grams in whole (and none in nonfat).
The debate on the healthfulness of saturated fat has never been fully settled. Some researchers link it to negative effects on heart health, while others say it is fine and may even be beneficial. It’s too big a debate to open up here, but there’s evidence on both sides. The U.S. Agriculture Department recommends nonfat or low-fat. One 150-gram daily serving of any of these yogurts isn’t super-high in total or saturated fat, so eat the one that you prefer.
Yogurt is a fermented food, which is made when milk is mixed with live and active cultures including Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. But all yogurts don’t necessarily contain high levels of a variety of therapeutic probiotic strains. Beneficial strains such as Bifidobacterium lactis or Lactobacillus casei and acidophilus need to be purposefully added, and they are to some — but not all — yogurts. When they are added, the yogurt container lists them as specific ingredients. Look for these to reap the benefits of probiotics for gut health.
Dairy or nondairy
Nondairy yogurt accounts for just 2 percent of yogurt sales but has seen a 224 percent growth over the past three years, so it’s definitely on people’s radar. If you’re not a dairy fan, you can now choose plant-based yogurts, which may be made from soy, oats, coconut or almonds. And yep, these are ultra-processed foods. Some are low in protein; others add pea protein to bump up the numbers. Some don’t contain any calcium, while other brands add calcium citrate to provide a source of this mineral. Read labels to know for sure.
My preference is for plain, probiotic-rich Greek yogurt, which is like a blank canvas. It’s versatile for both sweet and savory culinary ideas. I use it for honey-sweetened and berry-topped granola parfaits, but I also add a dollop on tacos and baked potatoes, and make it into an amazing ranch dip.
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By and specializes in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”
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