It’s easy get overwhelmed when looking for yogurt at the grocery store. Dozens of brands line the shelves in the refrigerated section. We can choose from light, whipped or creamy styles. We have options for whole, low-fat and nonfat varieties. Flavors include strawberry, blueberry, apple-cinnamon and lemon custard. We can enjoy authentic Greek nonfat yogurt with dark chocolate chunks, coffee bean bliss or salted caramel crunch. The number of choices for yogurt is mind blowing. In Marion Nestle’s book, What To Eat, she describes finding 400 different varieties of yogurt in one medium-sized Supermarket in New York (1).
Yogurt Health Halo
Yogurt is a food produced by the fermentation of milk. The beneficial bacteria in yogurt make it a probiotic and the live microorganisms contained in yogurt can benefit our health (2, 3, 4). Yogurt is high in calcium, iodine, phosphorus, vitamin B12 and riboflavin and is a good source of zinc, potassium and protein (5, 6). These features create a yogurt health halo.
Traditional plain yogurt is thick and has a sour taste which is why many of us prefer added fruit and flavors. With these additions, yogurt has gradually morphed from a health food into a dessert. It’s difficult to find plain yogurt among the cleverly packaged, colorful cups of sugar infused, creatively flavored concoctions marketed as yogurt.
Yogurt has amazingly maintained its healthy status, despite what has been added. It’s easier to find yogurt with Oreo cookies, M&Ms and Whoopers than yogurt without anything added. Most of us know that the addition of M&Ms to yogurt makes it more like a snack food than a health food. Yet, few of us would equate a breakfast of strawberry yogurt & granola to ice cream & cookies. Strawberry yogurt with granola may have fewer calories and fat than most brands of ice cream, but it's likely to have as much added sugar and more food additives.
Exploring Chocolate Yogurt
Let's take a look at Chocolate Haze Craze yogurt shown below. What about this product tells us it's healthy? It contains calcium, it’s an excellent source of protein, it is low-fat and wears the yogurt health halo. If we look at the ingredients we see low-fat yogurt as the first ingredient. But, the second ingredient is evaporated cane juice. Evaporated cane juice is code for sugar. The next two ingredients are water and hazelnuts and the 5th ingredient is sugar, followed by chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. The remaining nine ingredients are mostly food additives.
Comparing Yogurt and Ice Cream
Let’s compare our chocolate yogurt with Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy® ice cream.
Chocolate yogurt ingredients
Low-fat yogurt (nonfat milk, cream and live and active cultures) evaporated cane juice, water, hazelnuts, sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, milk, cocoa powder, natural flavor, pectin, locust bean gum, guar gum, organic soy lecithin, salt, vanilla.
Chocolate ice cream ingredients
Cream, liquid sugar, skim milk, water, cocoa, wheat flour, sugar, soybean oil, egg yolks, chocolate liquor, brown sugar, cocoa, honey, guar gum, vanilla extract, natural flavors, salt, sodium bicarbonate, cocoa butter, carrageenan, soy lecithin (7).
Chocolate Yogurt and Chocolate Ice cream Differences
Let's start with the differences between these two products. The data for the comparison is from the USDA Nutrient Database (8) and the serving size used for yogurt is 150 grams, similar to the 6 ounce serving at the grocery store. The serving of ice cream used is 100 grams, which is like an extra large scoop. Although these are the serving sizes used, it's important to keep in mind that this makes the comparison between the two somewhat unbalanced.
The first ingredient in the yogurt is low-fat yogurt and it has live and active cultures. The ice cream does not. There is less fat in the yogurt. The yogurt has 10 grams per serving, while the ice cream has 14 grams per serving. There is less saturated fat in the yogurt as well. There are 12 grams of protein in the yogurt, but only 5 grams in the ice cream. Although the ice cream actually has double the amount of fiber than the yogurt, it's only 2 grams compared with the yogurt's 1 gram. The yogurt comes in a small container that makes it easy to stop eating. The larger container of Ben & Jerry's makes it easy to eat more than a single serving.
Chocolate Yogurt and Chocolate Ice cream Similarities
The second ingredient in both the ice cream and the yogurt is sugar. Remember, evaporated cane juice is sugar. If we look through the ingredients, we can find 13 similar ingredients. The similar ingredients are highlighted in red, the cane juice, which is sugar, is highlighted in blue. Sugar, cream, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, natural flavor, guar gum, soy lecithin, salt and vanilla are all in both products. What is one of the most striking similarities is the amount of sugar.
Yogurt has 22 grams of sugar per serving and the ice cream
has 23 grams of sugar per serving.
Keep in mind the standardized serving sizes for yogurt and ice cream are different, 150 to 100 grams respectively, but this is a striking similarity. Both have naturally occurring sugar, lactose in the milk and cream, so it’s difficult to know exactly how much added sugar is in each product.
Most Yogurt is Dessert
Although yogurt may have edged out ice cream in regards to health in the comparison above, the two are similar in many respects. Their core ingredients are the same, they have similar amounts of sugar and the same types of food additives. Most yogurts on the market are closer to dessert foods than health foods. Most yogurts have no real fruit, only fruit flavors. Some yogurts have real fruit, but they will generally have more sugar than fruit (1).
There are about 6 grams of naturally occurring sugar in a 6 ounce container of yogurt. The remaining sugar is added. If the yogurt has been heat-treated, the microorganisms in the yogurt will not survive and will have no health benefit. These brands should carry the label “heat-treated after culturing”, as determined by the FDA (9).
Choose Plain Yogurt
When you choose yogurt, look for plain yogurt without added sugars, artificial sweeteners or flavors. Look for brands with "live and active cultures". Add whole, fresh fruit, nuts or seeds to plain yogurt and enjoy a delicious treat while obtaining all the health benefits. If you want to eat ice cream ... eat ice cream. Treat it like a dessert, eat it occasionally and enjoy it!
If a food has to tell you it’s healthy, it probably isn’t healthy.
When shopping for healthy foods, it’s easy to be seduced by health claims and nutrient claims on food packages. Claims such as “low fat”, “contains 90 calories” or “high in fiber” are what the FDA calls nutrient content claims (1). The FDA regulates these claims in an attempt to prevent manufacturers from misleading consumers, yet nutrient claims and other packaging terms can be very deceptive.
Let’s take a look at the terms used on Fruit & Grain Cereal Bars.
This product is selling health with the terms:
In addition, there are pictures of whole blueberries on the product cover and a whole wheat plant. Both imply whole food and health.
This is classic nutritional doublethink because it’s easy to look at the cookie-like bar with a jelly filling and know, intuitively, that this is not a healthy food. In addition, for a food to be considered a good source of fiber, it needs to have at least 2.5 grams of fiber per serving (2). This product has 2 grams of fiber per serving, which means it is not a good source of fiber.
The very first ingredient is high fructose corn syrup. There are 56 other ingredients in this product. Let’s take a look at the first seven ingredients in the filling,
If we follow Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (3), products like this violate rules 4, 5 and 6.
#4: Avoid food products that contain high fructose corn syrup
A whole food doesn’t need to tell you it’s healthy. A whole food won’t make any nutrient claims or health claims. With every step of processing, a food loses nutrients and gains food additives.
Be skeptical of food products trying to sell health.
Nutritional doublethink is the simultaneous acceptance of two contradictory beliefs about a food. Nutritional doublethink is the ability to believe a food is unhealthy, while at the same time believing the food is healthy. The term nutritional doublethink is derived from George Orwell’s book, 1984, best known for the omnipresent, tyrannical party leader, Big Brother. In 1984, the ruling party encouraged doublethink, defined as the ability to simultaneously hold two contradictory thoughts in one's head without recognizing the contradiction. We can apply the concept of doublethink to nutrition.
Manufacturers use food labeling laws to make unhealthy products look healthy, to make unnatural products appear natural and to make processed food appear whole. For example, Organic Fruit Snacks have “natural strawberry, cherry and raspberry flavors” listed immediately under the product name. Organic and fruit imply naturally occurring. The common thought process is, if it’s natural and contains fruit, then it most certainly must be healthy.
The package displays a picture of what looks like colorful gummy bunny snack foods. Inherently we know that gummy snacks are not foods that promote health. We know that gummy snacks do not occur in nature. It’s clear that these snacks are “fruit flavored” and not “whole” fruit. We know this product is not natural, we know this product is processed and we know candy is not healthy. Yet, we accept it as natural, we accept it as whole and we it accept as a healthy snack. By accepting this product as both unhealthy and healthy, as unnatural and natural, as processed and whole, we’ve simultaneously accepted two contradictory beliefs about a single food. This food product has created nutritional doublethink.
Bunny Fruit (TM) Snacks ingredient list:
Organic tapioca syrup, organic pear juice from concentrate, organic cane sugar, organic tapioca syrup solids, citrus pectin, citric acid, sodium citrate, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), natural flavors, organic sunflower oil, organic carnauba wax, colors (black carrot, blackcurrant extracts).
Translated ingredient list:
Sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar, fiber additive, food additive, food additive, vitamin C, natural flavors created in a lab, omega-6 fatty acids, food additive, color additive.
Sugar intake is associated with tooth decay, fatty liver, insulin resistance, inflammation, obesity, food addiction, heart disease and cancer (1-5). Although this product boasts 100% of the daily value of vitamin C, the vitamin C is not squeezed from an orange. Most vitamins are now made in China, with China being one of the largest suppliers of vitamin C in the world (6). Fortifying Organic Fruit Snacks with Vitamin C is violating the Jelly Bean Rule. The FDA’s Jelly Bean Rule states,
“…random fortification of foods could … result in deceptive or misleading claims for certain foods. The Food and Drug Administration does not encourage indiscriminate addition of nutrients to foods, nor does it consider it appropriate to fortify … snack foods such as candies (7).“
Although a slightly better choice than it's conventional counterpart with artificial colors such as Red #40 or Yellow #5, Organic Fruit Snacks are more like candy than fruit.
Avoid nutritional doublethink by reading labels and identifying sugar and food additives in ingredient lists. Don’t be fooled by health claims, the word natural or assume that organic means healthy.
Christine Dobrowolski is a nutritionist and whole-foods advocate.