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How to Buy the Best Yogurt

Navigate the Dairy Case with Confidence
  -- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian
While food historians cannot pinpoint exactly where or when humans discovered yogurt, one thing is certain: People all over the world have eaten yogurt for centuries. Yogurt is made when cow's milk (or dairy-free soy milk) is combined with the live, active bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. The mixture ferments and the microorganisms change the milk’s sugar (lactose) into lactic acid, which gives yogurt its tart, tangy flavor and firm, custard-like texture.

A Sweet Treat or a Health Food?
Yogurt is most often marketed as a delicious food that promotes health, and for good reason. Just one cup of yogurt contains about 45% of your daily calcium needs, plus other key nutrients like protein, potassium, iodine and B vitamins. It may also help to prevent osteoporosis, colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, high blood pressure, and yeast infections, according to some research. Yogurt may help to regulate your digestive system and boost your immune system. As an added bonus, people with mild lactose intolerance can usually enjoy yogurt (and frozen yogurt!), too.

While yogurt can be a nutritious food and tasty snack, not every yogurt is a healthy choice. In fact, many commercially prepared yogurts have as much fat and sugar as desserts, yet still masquerade as healthy treats! Read on so you can navigate the ever-growing yogurt case and see past the claims on the packages.

Fat, Flavorings and Fillers
Standing in front of the dairy case can be overwhelming. How do you choose the right yogurt for your needs (and tastes)? Here are three things to look for on the label when making your decision. (For those looking for a non-dairy yogurt alternative, soy yogurts may be just the ticket. Look for calcium-fortified varieties that contain active cultures.)

Fat Content Like milk and other dairy products, yogurts vary according to the amount of milk fat they contain. Yogurt made from whole milk must contain at least 3.25 percent milk fat. Low-fat yogurts have the same amount of milk fat as the milks from which they are made (2% and 1% milk) and fat-free yogurts are made from skim milk. Most people agree that yogurts that are higher in fat taste better, but because the standard American diet is already high in fat and calories, low-fat and fat free yogurts are the best choices for most, especially people who need to lose or manage their weight.

Flavorings Yogurt is often flavored with extracts from other foods (vanilla, coffee, or lemon), but it can contain fresh, frozen, dried or fruit or fruit preserves, too. Don't let those tiny amounts of fruit fool you—most yogurts contain a fraction of a single serving of fruit. There are two common styles of yogurt to choose from, depending on your own taste preferences: sundae and blended. Sundae-style yogurt has fruit at the bottom of the container and plain or flavored yogurt on top. Blended-style (Swiss or French-style) yogurt blends fruit and flavorings throughout plain or flavored yogurt. <pagebreak>

Fillers and Extras Other ingredients that you may find on the ingredients label include: Shopping Tips: What to Look for on the Label
The following guidelines will help with locate a healthy yogurt to meet your nutritional needs. All information is based on a single 6-ounce serving of yogurt—the most common size of individual yogurt cups. (Keep in mind that large tubs of yogurt tend to measure a single serving as 8 ounces or 1 cup.) One 6-ounce portion of yogurt should contain: Look for the Live and Active Cultures seal from the National Yogurt Association, too (see "Probiotics" bullet point above).

A Word about Greek Yogurt
Greek yogurt is a great alternative for people who want the creaminess of full-fat yogurt for fewer calories and fat grams. Greek yogurt is produced by straining off the liquid whey, which concentrates the protein in the yogurt. You can usually find fat-free and low-fat Greek yogurts, often plain, that are naturally creamy and tangy. While Greek yogurt is even lower in lactose (great for people with intolerances), some of its calcium is lost during the straining process. Because Greek yogurt requires up to three times as much milk to make as regular yogurt, it is more expensive. That means some brands cut costs by adding thickeners (think: gelatin, corn starch, milk protein concentrate), often labeling their yogurts as "Greek style," so read labels. Real Greek yogurt will not contain these thickening agents; it'll also have 13-18 grams of protein per carton, which is two to three times higher than traditional yogurts.

Greek Yogurt Selection Tips
While Greek yogurt is a nutritious food to include in your weight-loss eating plan, be sure to carefully read labels to know exactly what you are getting. Some Greek yogurts use full-fat milk along with mounds of sugar for sweetness. Certain brands can have more than 300 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 3 teaspoons of added sugar in a 6-ounce portion. To assist in the selection process:

On average, 6-ounces of plain Greek yogurt lists about 7 grams of sugar on the nutrition label. This is the sugar found naturally in milk, not added sugar. So realize as you venture into sweetened, flavored yogurts that every additional 4 grams of sugar means 1 teaspoon of added sugar. If you find Greek yogurt with more than 20 grams of sugar, consider it to be a dessert rather than a dairy serving, since it has more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar in that 6-ounce portion. <pagebreak>

Yogurts We Like
The follow chart contains a sampling of some popular commercial yogurts that meet the general nutrition guidelines outlined above. As always, check the label before you buy, as the ingredients used in manufacturing can change. Nutrition facts are per 6-ounce serving unless otherwise noted.

Yogurt Calories Fat Protein Sugars Calcium Sweetener
Dannon Light & Fit, non-fat, flavored 60 0g 5g 7g 20% DV Sucralose
Brown Cow Greek yogurt, non-fat, plain (5.3 oz) 80 0g 15g 6g 20% DV None
Blue Bunny Light, No-Sugar Added, flavored 80 0g 7g 7g 20% DV Sucralose
Bryers Light, non-fat, flavored 80 0g 6g 7g 20% DV Acesulfame K, Aspartame
Any brand, non-fat, plain 80-90 0g 8-9g 12-13g 30% DV None
Any brand, low-fat, plain 100-105 3g 8g 12g 30% DV None
Chobani Greek yogurt, non-fat, plain 100 0 18g 7g 20% DV None
Fage Greek yogurt, non-fat, plain 100 0 18g 7g 20% DV None
Weight Watchers, low-fat, flavored 100 0.5g 6g 12g 30% DV Crystalline fructose, Sucralose
Yoplait Light, non-fat, flavored 100 0g 5g 14g 20% DV Aspartame, HFCS
Dannon All Natural, low-fat, flavored (4 oz) 120 1g 5g 19-20g 20% DV Sugar
Stonyfield Farm Organic, fat-free, flavored 120-130 0g 7g 21-23g 25% DV Sugar
Trader Joe's Organic, low-fat, flavored 130-150 2.5g 6-7g 21g 25% DV Organic evaporated cane juice
Voskos Greek yogurt, non-fat, plain (8 oz) 140 0g 24g 8g 20% DV None
Silk Live! Soy Yogurt, low-fat, flavored 150 2g 4g 18g 30% DV Organic evaporated cane juice
Seven Stars Farm 1% Maple Organic Yogurt, low-fat, flavored (8 oz) 150 1.5g 7g 24g 30% DV Maple syrup

Using Yogurt
For many people, yogurt is tasty enough when eaten straight from the cup. But if you'd like more ideas to incorporate yogurt into your meals and snacks, start with these tips.

Yogurt should be stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain peak flavor and freshness. It keeps at least 10 days after the "sell by" date stamped on the container.