May 26th, 2010

{food for thought} All About Yogurt!

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:

  • calcium
  • phosphorus
  • riboflavin-vitamin B2
  • iodine
  • vitamin B12
  • vitamin B5
  • zinc
  • potassium
  • protein

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:

  • about half the calories of the same amount of fruit-added yogurt
  • almost twice the amount of proteins
  • fewer fillers
  • more calcium
  • no added sugar

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:

Breakfast

  • In oatmeal
  • With muesli or granola
  • Blended into a smoothie with fruit, silken tofu, ice (unless you used frozen fruit), and a little water or juice
  • Mixed in with cream cheese (to thin it out) and smashed fruit to fill “waffle sandwiches”
  • Mixed into pancake or waffle batter (flour, baking soda, baking powder, milk, eggs, yogurt, and fruit and spices, if you like)
  • Mixed with minced garlic and poured over poached eggs (finish with a drizzle of paprika sautéed for a minute in melted butter)
  • Instead of sour cream on top of your breakfast burrito or huevos rancheros

Lunch/dinner

  • Instead of or mixed in with (less) mayo in any lunch salad (e.g, tuna or chicken salad)
  • As a base for salad dressing–try yogurt, buttermilk, a dash of cider vinegar, and herbs OR yogurt blended with feta cheese, green onions, mint, and oil
  • As garnish on soup or beans–or try a yogurt based soup (I’ve been wanting to try this Hot Yogurt Soup with Barley and Cilantro)
  • Mixed with garlic and cumin, curry, or masala powder as a marinade for grilled or broiled chicken
  • Mixed with curry powder or lemon and dill to dress a plain rice pilaf
  • Mixed with lots of dried mint, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil for a middle-eastern style casserole sauce that works with chicken or lamb (top with toasted slivered almonds)

Dips & spreads

  • Creamy lemon dip for asparagus or artichokes
  • Avocado yogurt dip (or just mix yogurt into your guacamole)
  • Tzasiki–yogurt,garlic, lemon, cucumbers, olive oil, and dill
  • Cilantro yogurt dip (yummy with fried stuff like fritters or crab cakes)
  • Mixed with (less) mayo and sour cream, along with fresh herbs, mustard, a dash of white wine vinegar, and garlic to make a lighter, traditional herb dip for crudite
  • Mixed with blue cheese and garlic for a healthier companion to those yummy buffalo chicken wings or fingers

11 Responses

  1. eensies mama says:

    great post, PACKED with good ideas. I can’t wait to make those waffle sandwiches for my hungry girl!

  2. Brooke says:

    What a FANTASTIC post! And absolutely uncanny, too. Because just.this.morning I was pondering the idea of making my own yogurt from Almond milk. I quickly wrote it off as an impossible task, but now you’ve got me thinking!

    Thanks for such an informative post! So glad to have discovered you through Parent & Child’s nomination. Hurray for all of us Cooking & Craft gals!

  3. Erin says:

    This is a fabulous post! We consume the Stonyfield Farms versions in quantity, so I’m glad to have the wake-up call, and the new ideas for plain yogurt! Thanks!

  4. One Hungry Mama says:

    thanks, ladies! i’m so happy that this post was helpful. it’s a little (um, okay, a LOT) long and i thought that might annoy people. :-) glad you read through, or at least enough to get the gist and pick up a few ideas.

    erin, yes, i feel like even those of us who are really good at turning a critical eye at food labels (eg, just b/c it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy!) can get more easily caught up when it comes to yogurt. it just seems like such a simple, whole food… if it’s organic and a brand you trust, it must be good. but not necessarily so. especially when you eat it in quantity (as we do, too). so, it’s always good to be aware.

    and, brooke, so glad that i found your site, too!! i was shocked that i hadn’t come across your fabulousness before! we’ve been really into almond milk here, too, lately. i think almond milk yogurt sounds GENIUS! i think you should do it! and maybe we can talk about doing a project together sometime soon!

  5. Marie says:

    What a fabulous food site you have. It all looks delicious. You’re tough competition! I’m happy to have found you through the Scholastic awards, nominated along side of you! Best of luck to you!!

  6. Rosie says:

    Great post. Count me amongst the plain yogurt crowd-that’s all I buy and find it so much better than the flavored variety.

  7. DailyChef says:

    Great post – so much useful information! I like yogurt and granola – one of my favorite combinations.

  8. Susan says:

    Love the post also — we are big fans of plain yogurt here also, but also plain kefir for making shakes and eating on cereal. It has even more probiotics than yogurt does.
    Another great yogurt dip I do for my toddler is a pretty even mix of plain yogurt and almond butter with a little drizzle of honey. Whisk it all together and fiddle to taste. He dips veggies in it, or just eats it by the spoonful!

  9. Jennifer says:

    Great post, as usual. The thing is, I’m finding yogurt to be such a minefield these days. I usually buy Stoneyfield Farm plain yogurt and add my own fruit (yum, bananas, raisins, a little Grape Nuts, wheat germ and honey has been my favorite since I’ve been pregnant), but every once in a while I decide to go for one of the pre-flavored ones and WoW, they are so sugary!! They should be marketed as dessert!

    Oh, and my favorite use for yogurt as a savory is as a topping for any kind of bean dish: black beans, chili, red beans and rice. I tend to make my bean dishes a little spicy and this adds a nice counterbalance.

  10. One Hungry Mama says:

    I also love yogurt on black beans! Really, it’s good on almost anything instead of sour cream (a weakness of mine!). I’m glad you found this post useful!

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