May 26th, 2010
June. The sixth month of the year. The beginning of summer. And National Dairy Month.
In honor of Dairy Month, I was invited by the fabulous folks at Mamapedia to join a webinar hosted by the California Milk Advisory Board and Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, authors of Real Food Has Curves.
I don’t know about you, but when I think about dairy, I think of two things: cheese and yogurt. I love both and think of them as being on opposite sides of the health spectrum. Cheese: so good it’s bad. (At least when you eat it, ahem, in quantity!) And yogurt: pure goodness. But, as it turns out, things are not so simple!
Cheese (not the processed kind, folks—we’re talking real cheese) is a great food. Full of vitamin D, calcium and fat that, when savored in moderation, can trigger the brain to feel satisfied. If you can get in the habit of exercising moderation, you’ll find that a small hunk of cheese (perhaps paired with some fruit) is a great all-natural snack that will sate you much more than any processed “diet” snack (or even a dose of carbs).
The story on yogurt, on the other hand, is not so simple. Famed pediatrician Dr. Sears said, “Yogurt is one of the healthiest foods you can feed your family.” But he’s talking about the plain stuff. How many of you still buy that? (We do, but for a long time it was impossible to find it in any size smaller than the huge tub.)
Yogurt products are one of the most successfully marketed foods in the supermarket. I wonder if that’s because we know how nutritious yogurt is and are always hungry for more? Or because misinformation about yogurt makes it easy to spin the nutritional benefits of new products? In honor of Dairy Month, I decided to dig a little deeper and learn more about available yogurt options and how to use yogurt in as healthy a way as possible.
What’s the scoop on yogurt?
Yogurt is milk fermented with bacteria. (Tastes better than it sounds.) In the fermentation process, milk sugar (lactose) breaks down to produce lactic acid, which gives yogurt its texture and tang. There is evidence that we have been producing cultured milk products for at least 4,500 years, with use of yogurt being recorded for the first time by mediaeval Turks in the 11th century.
It’s no wonder that yogurt has been popular for so long: it’s insanely nutritious with health benefits that some believe may help us live longer. According to the World’s Healthiest Foods, yogurt is a significant source of:
And that’s not to mention the health benefits provided by yogurt’s live bacteria, including a boost to immune response, reduction of bad cholesterol, and increase in good cholesterol. But are all yogurts created equally?
Marketing razzle dazzle
I remember Yoplait being a big thing when I was little. It was simple: a battle between pre-mixed and fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt. Little did I know then that Yoplait was just the tip of the yogurt marketing iceberg. From on-the-go squeezable tubes (Go-Gurt), to separate crunchies (Breyers YoCrunch), yogurt smoothies (Danimal Drinkables Xtreme on one end of the spectrum, Stonyfield Farm Organic Smoothies on the other), special yogurt for babies (Stonyfield Farms YoBaby), novelty packaging for kids (Danimals Coolisions), and the most successful of all, probiotic yogurts (like Dannon’s wildly successful and legally disputed Activa).
As it turns out, though, the best of these products have tons more sugar than less popular plain yogurt. They can also contain high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners (that provide modest calorie savings), and artificial dyes. At worse, they are marketed with unsubstantiated claims. Yogurt with probiotics are a prime example. (Although research indicates that probiotics can be beneficial, questions remain about how well that research translates into the real world.)
The bottom line
It may not be the most exciting option in the yogurt aisle but, ounce per ounce, plain yogurt (whole milk for children under 2) is more nutritious than most fruit-added options. Dr. Sears points out that plain yogurt contains:
If you want to check for yourself, yogurt is the perfect product to practice comparing nutritional labels. I did a quick comparison of two Stonyfield Farm products: organic whole milk plain and organic YoBaby banana/vanilla. Even though YoBaby is by far the most natural of the yogurts marketed to children, it still contains natural coloring (annato in the banana) and about twice the sugar. Plus, you get a total of 32 oz of plain for the same price as 24 oz of YoBaby. You also get way less and more easily recyclable packaging with plain. I won’t bother with a comparison of Stonyfield Farms YoKids (organic, but full of sugar and fillers) to Danon’s kids’ yogurts. One look at the labels and you’ll know why!
Cooking with yogurt
Another reason to buy plain yogurt is that it’s the most versatile. If you crave the sweetness of fruit-at-the-bottom, you can whip it up in seconds with way less sugar: add fruit (whole or pureed) plus a drizzle of honey. (Quick tip from the webinar: if your kids are into yogurt packaging with characters, let them decorate a plain cup with stickers to be their dedicated yogurt dish!)
But you can also use plain yogurt to make dips, sauces, marinades, cakes, salad dressing, and more. (Quick tip: When cooking with yogurt, I prefer Greek-style since it’s easier to thin a sauce than it is to thicken it.) Just keep in mind that putting yogurt to heat kills the live cultures, so be sure to include plenty of un-cooked yogurt in your diet. Even when you heat yogurt, though, it’s nutritious and often a great substitute for fattier or less healthy ingredients.
Here are some ideas across every meal to inspire healthy use of yogurt in your kitchen:
Dips & spreads