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The Not So Secret Truth About Yogurt

Healthy Yogurt

Story at-a-glance -

  • The largest percentage of yogurt consumers (44 percent) eat yogurt for health reasons
  • Most commercial yogurt contains far too much sugar and other additives, and not enough probiotics to be healthy
  • The healthiest yogurt is organic, unsweetened and made from raw 100% grass-fed milk

By Dr. Mercola

Yogurt can be incredibly healthy, rich in high-quality protein, beneficial probiotics, calcium, B vitamins and, even cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). But the key words are "can be."

Most yogurts sold in US grocery stores resemble dessert more than a health food. Americans are accustomed to added sugar and flavors in their yogurt, which negates much of its health potential. Around the world, however, yogurt is often enjoyed in its traditional – and far better for you – form.

Savory Yogurt Is Popular Around the Globe

Sugar-sweetened, fruit-flavored yogurts are among the most popular in the US, but in other countries you'll find yogurt paired with garlic, cumin, olive oil, and lemon. Around the world, plain yogurt, in all of its sour glory, is often served as a regular side dish with meals.

It's used as a base for dressings and sauces on meats and vegetables alike, and in Mongolia, where some families lead nomadic lifestyles, it's even dried until it hardens into a mass, making it a nutrient-dense food that can be carried with them.1

Cheryl Sternman Rule, author of "Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World's Creamiest Healthiest Food," wrote in the Washington Post:2

"When I whisk garlic into yogurt, I'm hardly a renegade. After all, the two foods pair frequently in such dishes as Greek tzatziki and Turkish ali nazik kebab, char-grilled eggplant, and lamb sauced with garlicky yogurt.

And garlic isn't the only yogurt booster, of course. In Lebanon, labneh — that super-strained, lightly salted version — gets dusted with za'atar and drizzled with olive oil, no sugar bowl in sight. In South Asia, roasted cumin is as common a feature in the region's raitas as it is in its cooling, savory lassis."

In the US, savory yogurt is beginning to catch on. It's not unusual to find Greek yogurt dips and salad dressings, for instance, even at conventional grocery stores. However, according to a 2014 report by market research firm Mintel, sweet, fruit-flavored yogurts still dominate the market. Sternman Rule continued:3

"Of the top 10 yogurts and yogurt drinks launched between 2010 and 2014, seven were fruit flavored, with plain (at number 3), vanilla (number 4), and honey (number 9) filling out the ranks."

The Largest Category of Yogurt Consumers Do So for Health Reasons

Ironically, the Mintel report found the largest percentage of yogurt consumers (44 percent) eat yogurt for health reasons, and because they believe yogurt is a healthy choice compared to other options.4

This is ironic because most US yogurt is far from a health food. If you're eating yogurt to help optimize your gut flora, for instance, chances are you're currently eating yogurt that has more similarities with candy than anything else, courtesy of its added sugar content.

When Yoplait yogurt was created in 1999, for instance, it contained 100 percent more sugar per serving than the company's Lucky Charms cereal! Yet everyone recognized yogurt as a wholesome food, and sales of Yoplait soared.

Even today, one six-ounce container of Yoplait yogurt may contain 26 grams of sugar (for the red raspberry flavor, for example).5 Earlier this year, in an effort to give their brand a healthier image, General Mills announced it would slash the sugar in Yoplait Original by 25 percent. But even with the reduction, it will still be close to 20 grams of sugar in one container.

The negative effects from sugar content far outweigh the marginal benefits from the minimal amount beneficial bacteria they contain. Remember, the most important step in building healthy gut flora is avoiding sugar, as that can cause disease-causing microbes to crowd out your beneficial flora.

Many other yogurts contain artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, and additives, yet masquerade as health food. Mark A. Kastel, co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, which released the Yogurt Report last year, said:6

"What is most egregious about our findings is the marketing employed by many of the largest agribusinesses selling junk food masquerading as health food, mostly aimed at moms, who are hoping to provide their children an alternative, a more nutritious snack. In some cases, they might as well be serving their children soda pop or a candy bar with a glass of milk on the side."

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Many Yogurt Products Are Not Even Real Yogurt

If you want to know which commercial yogurts are healthy and which are not, refer to The Cornucopia Institute's Yogurt Report. Their investigation found many products being sold as yogurt do not even meet the standards for real yogurt. The report also includes a comparative cost analysis of commercial yogurt brands.

The good news is many organic yogurts are actually less expensive, on a price-per-ounce basis, than conventional, heavily processed yogurts (although some of the organic brands of yogurt actually contained some of the highest amounts of sugar). As noted in their press release:

"Based on its industry investigation, The Cornucopia Institute has filed a formal complaint with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asking the agency to investigate whether or not certain yogurts on the market, manufactured by such companies as Yoplait, Dannon, and many store brands including Walmart's Great Value, violate the legal standard of identity for products labeled as yogurt.

The Cornucopia Institute requests that the legal definition of 'yogurt' be enforced for product labeling, just as it is for products labeled 'cheese.' The reason that Kraft has to call Velveeta® 'processed cheese-food' is that some of the ingredients used, like vegetable oil, cannot legally be in a product marketed as 'cheese,' Kastel added.

Cornucopia alleges that some of the ingredients that manufactures are using in yogurt, like milk protein concentrate (MPC), typically imported from countries like India, do not meet yogurt's current legal standard of identity."

How to Distinguish Between Healthy and Unhealthy Yogurt

The top-rated yogurts are generally VAT pasteurized at relatively low temperatures and are made from raw milk rather than previously pasteurized milk.

While not as advantageous as making yogurt from raw milk in your own home, it's certainly better than most commercial yogurt. You'll also want to seek out organic yogurt and that made from 100% grass-fed or pastured milk. And you'll want whole milk, not low-fat or skim. As reported by the George Mateljan Foundation:7

"Because grass feeding of cows can increase the healthfulness of fats in their body, milk from those cows can be a source of high-quality fats for making yogurt. Lactic acid bacteria used to ferment milk into yogurt have now been shown to take some of its fatty acids and convert them into conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).

A fairly conservative estimate of the CLA in grass-fed yogurt would be about 8 milligrams per liquid ounce. Research is linking our CLA intake to decreased risk of many health problems, including heart attack, blood sugar imbalance, excessive inflammation, and loss of bone mass.

One of the reasons we generally recommend grass-fed yogurts from whole milk is that nonfat and skim-milk yogurts—while still healthy in many ways—cannot naturally provide this same level of CLA or other high-quality fats like the omega-3s found in most whole milk yogurts."

In addition, many yogurts claim to contain Live and Active Cultures, but this label might not mean what you think. The Cornucopia report took a look at the food industry's labeling campaign, Live and Active Cultures, which is supposed to help consumers select products with high levels of healthy probiotics.

To assess probiotic content, Cornucopia tested yogurt purchased directly from grocery stores instead of following the industry's practice of testing levels at the factory. As it turns out, many of the brands bearing the Live and Active Cultures label contain LOWER levels of probiotics than the top-rated organic brands in Cornucopia's report and scorecard that are not part of the Live and Active campaign.

Yogurt Is Surprisingly Easy to Make at Home

If you can't find any of the top-rated yogurt brands in a grocery store near you, one option is to call the store manager and request it. Many stores will bring in new products, especially if multiple customers request them. Another option is to join a local food coop, which may sell grass-fed raw dairy products, including yogurt. Your absolute best bet when it comes to yogurt, however, is to make your own using a starter culture and raw grass-fed milk.

Raw organic milk from grass-fed cows not only contains beneficial bacteria that prime your immune system and can help reduce allergies, it's also an outstanding source of vitamins (especially vitamin A), zinc, enzymes, and healthy fats. Raw organic milk is not associated with many of the health problems of pasteurized milk such as rheumatoid arthritis, skin rashes, diarrhea, and cramps, and it's surprisingly easy to turn your raw milk into yogurt. All you need is a high-quality culture starter added to a quart of raw milk, which you leave at room temperature overnight.

By the time you wake up in the morning, you will likely have kefir. If it hasn't obtained the consistency of yogurt, you might want to set it out a bit longer and then store it in the fridge. If you want to sweeten up your homemade yogurt naturally, try adding in some whole berries or dried (unsweetened) coconut. But remember, it's delicious when combined with savory flavors, too, so don't be afraid to add in some garlic, shallots, dill, or other spices to make a yogurt-based dip, dressing, or sauce.

Cultured foods should be a regular part of your diet, and if you eat enough of them you will keep your digestive tract well-supplied with beneficial bacteria. However, don't make the mistake of using sweetened commercial yogurt as your source of culture food. Raw, grass-fed kefir and yogurt, whether made at home or purchased from a local farm, is a true health food and virtually the only type of yogurt worthy of eating.