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!
Do granola bars grow on trees? What about cereal puffs? Do sausages roam in the wild? To assess a food product the question to ask is not, "is it healthy?". Instead, ask yourself "how close does this food resemble its natural state?". What did it look like in nature? The further away a product appears to how it existed in nature, the less healthy. Your granola bar may give you the impression that it’s all-natural, but very little in that granola bar appears as it did in nature.
With every step of processing there is a loss of naturally occurring nutrients
and a gain in food additives.
Visualize food existing on a spectrum, with whole food on the left and processed food on the right. With every step of processing, a food shifts to the right. In the image above, a whole green apple is on the left and a green apple flavored gummy bear is on the right. Apples grow on trees, green apple gummy bears do not. Sure apple cinnamon crunch cereal might be a smidgen better for you than apple puff snacks, but they are still closer to a gummy bear, than an apple.
If You Don’t Recognize It - Don’t Eat It
The terms used on food labels can be confusing, and making your way through an ingredient list can be overwhelming. What in the world is polydimethylsiloxane? Is isoamyl acetate safe to consume?* Instead of researching every single food additive, make it simple.
Avoid foods with:
If a food has more than one ingredient and you do not recognize the ingredients, consider it a food-like product. The goal is to eat on the left of the food spectrum, with whole food on the left and processed food on the right.
If a food has to tell you it’s healthy, it’s probably not healthy.
Manufacturers sell health by using key terms on their packaging. Some terms selling health include:
• nature, natural, naturally flavored
• good source of “nutrient X”
• vitamins added
• non fat, low fat, reduced fat
• low calorie
• trans fat free
• no high fructose corn syrup
Reduced fat, low fat and non fat are all ways of telling you that the manufacturer took out a naturally occurring fat and replaced it with sugar, starch or other food additive (2). Low calorie generally means an artificial sweetener has been added.
The FDA does not have a formal definition of the word natural. The FDA is currently soliciting comments about the term natural due to consumer concerns regarding genetically engineered ingredients and high fructose corn syrup in products with natural labeling (3). At this point in time, natural on a food label doesn’t really mean anything.
Gluten-free is important for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. It's important to keep in mind that gluten-free processed foods are still processed foods. When gluten comes out, a food additive, called a gluten replacement, is added in. Some gluten replacements include xanthin, pectin, agarose, oat B-glucan, carboxylmethylcellulose, hydroxypropylmethylcellulose, psyllium, gum arabic and locust bean (4).
If a manufacturer removes partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat) from a product, they will add in another type of processed fat or fat replacement. If the product is "free from high fructose corn syrup", you can be sure there is another sugar sweetener or artificial sweetener. In the fat free product shown above, three of the first four ingredients are sugar (sugar, invert sugar and corn syrup). If you accept the cookie cakes as healthy, because they are fat free and high fructose corn syrup free, yet at the same time understand that they are dessert foods with added sugar and food additives, you have engaged in nutritional doublethink. You have simultaneously accepted two contradictory beliefs about this food.
if fat comes out -> sugar is added in
When you are trying to decide if a food product is a whole food, ask yourself, “Does it grow on a tree or a bush? Does it grow in the ground? Does it roam in the wild?” If the answer is no to all of these questions, the product is most likely “not healthy”. The product will not help you lose weight, it won't reduce your risk of heart disease and it won't lower your cholesterol, despite what the label tells you.
Most foods consumed today are not really food. People consume food-like products. Avoid foods selling health. Don’t be seduced by “low fat” and “low calorie” claims. Read the ingredient list. Buy food with only a few ingredients and ingredients you recognize.
* Polydimethylsiloxane is a synthetic, silicone ingredient used as an anti-caking and anti-foaming agent. Due to silicone causing immune system changes in animals, this food additive has a "C" rating. Isoamyl acetate is an artificial flavoring agent that naturally occurs in bananas. Because high amounts have caused headaches, fatigue and fast heart rates, this food additive has an "F" rating (5).
Christine Dobrowolski is a nutritionist and whole-foods advocate.