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How to Choose a Yogurt: Beyond Protein

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Yogurt2We’ve all heard it…. “Yogurt is good for you. It has probiotics.”

With new claims coming out everyday about the benefits of probiotics in regards to good gut health, improved immunity, lower cholesterol, weight loss, and even reduced anxiety it is no wonder that the yogurt market has seen exponential growth.

I don’t know about you but I get a little overwhelmed looking down the yogurt aisle.  How many ways can you sell a yogurt? Nonfat, low-fat, whole milk, goat milk, Greek, Bulgarian, organic, grass fed, plain, flavored, fruit on bottom, sugar-free, added live cultures…..Whew! You get the point. There are a lot of choices.

You just want to be healthy.  Why does this have to be so hard?

I get cha.

Well, today I am going to help break it down for you.   By the end of this post you will be feeling a lot more confident in the yogurt aisle (Unless you are like me when you realize the more you know, the more you don’t know 🙂 )

To start things off let’s talk about sugar and all things sugar related.  I am sure it will come as no surprise that choosing a yogurt with no added sugar tends to be the healthiest option.  How do you know if it has added sugar?  Look at the ingredient list and if there is no sugar listed then it does not contain any added sugars.  However, sugar will still be listed on the nutrition facts because of the natural sugars (lactose) that occur in milk.

What about sugar substitutes? My personal preference is to avoid sugar substitutes.  This is a debated topic, but some research indicates that artificial sweeteners may alter your gut bacteria and cause glucose intolerance.  This may contribute to diabetes, which I am sure you are not intending when you buy yogurt with artificial sweeteners. Am I right?

Now let’s talk about protein.  One of the reasons why Greek yogurt has gained so much attention is because it tends to be higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates than traditional yogurts.  This is due to the way it is strained, leaving behind more milk solids.  Is higher protein better for you?  Maybe.  It certainly helps you feel more satisfied and tends to give you longer lasting energy than traditional yogurt.  If you have a difficult time getting in enough protein or managing your blood sugars then plain Greek yogurt may be a good option for you.  However, a higher protein yogurt is not always necessary.

What about organic versus conventional?  Ahhh the ongoing conversation.  If you can afford it, I suggest going organic. There is evidence that organic milk contains higher amounts of ALA, omega 3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA which have higher anti-inflammatory properties.  These levels are even higher when purchasing yogurt that comes from pasture raised cows.

I know most people purchase low-fat yogurt to help prevent weight gain and reduce saturated fat intake.  But I would like to argue that whole milk yogurt is a better option.  Why? There are hormones in your milk products such as estrogens, progesterone, insulin-like growth factor and some androgens (aka male sex hormones).  Some of these hormones are located more in the creamy, fat part of the milk, while others are located in the watery part of the milk.  When fat is removed from the milk the balance of hormones is altered.  Studies have shown that women who drink whole milk have better ovulation that those that drink skim milk. Furthermore, other studies have shown that acne was more common in teenage boys that consumed low fat dairy as opposed to those that consumed whole milk dairy.

Interesting, huh?

The key message here is that skim or low fat milk may mess with your hormones.  More research needs to be done but I personally feel that choosing whole milk is a better option, plus the extra fat tends to leave you more satisfied.

Okay, now here is my favorite part about this blog post.  Probiotics.

What exactly are probiotics? Let’s give you a little background.  According to the international endorsed definition,

“Probiotics are live microorganisms, that when administered in adequate amounts, confer a benefit to the host.”

Great!  Yogurt should fit the bill, right?  Not exactly.

Yogurts are fermented with different cultures and therefore may have varying amounts of probiotics. In fact, many yogurts are not even considered a probiotic food because they do not contain enough live bacteria or the bacteria does not provide any therapeutic benefit.

Your basic traditional yogurt is usually cultured with bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus.  Although these cultures are alive, they cannot survive the digestion process and have no therapeutic effect on your body (1), therefore, they are not considered a probiotic.  However, these bacteria utilize the lactose present in yogurt as a food source which can improve lactose digestion.  They also produce lactic acid which may create a hostile environment for bacteria invaders (aka bad guys) which can improve your immune system.  So at least they have that going for them!

What is all this talk about yogurt improving diarrhea, constipation, or lowering cholesterol?

Yogurt can improve these symptoms if they have the right strains in the culture.  Different strains are good for different health conditions.  For instance, Lactobacillus casei DN-114 001 has been shown to help prevent acute diarrhea, while Bifidobacterium  lactis DN-173 010 has been shown to relieve constipation. B.  lactis DN-173 010 can be found in Dannon Activia, which is why people may find it helpful if they have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  I will save my opinion about this yogurt for later 🙂

The strain that has been receiving the most attention in recent years is Lactobacillus acidophilus. This strain has been shown to be helpful in managing diabetes, improve cholesterol, replenish the gut flora after antibiotic use, and prevent traveler’s diarrhea.  To be honest it seems like there is more research coming out everyday on L. acidophilus.  But guess what? Most yogurts do not contain it.

Most traditional yogurts only contain L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus. So what is a consumer to do?

Look at the label!  Most yogurt companies that use strains other than L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus will want to promote it.  It should be listed in the ingredient list. Make sure it states “Live and Active Cultures.”  You do not want any yogurt that has been heat treated because they have killed off the good bacteria.

How do you know if it has enough good bacteria to have a positive effect?

Yogurt is considered to have a therapeutic benefit  if it contains 1 million Colony Forming Unit (CFU) of bacteria per ml (that’s about 240 million per cup of yogurt).  Unfortunately, the majority of yogurts do not list the amount of CFU’s they contain on their label.  Measuring CFU’s can be a challenging process because the amount may change with each batch of yogurt and it can also vary depending on how fresh the batch is or how it is stored.  Plus, even if it did list the amount of CFU’s, you would not know if it contains enough of the strain you are looking for.

One way a yogurt company can confirm the amount of CFU’s in their product is by undergoing third party analysis.  For example, both, Nancy’s Yogurt and White Mountain Bulgarian Yogurt, voluntarily  undergo third party testing to analyze how many CFU’s are in their product.  Both are above 50 billion CFU’s per serving.  Now that is a lot of good bacteria for your gut!

You might be wondering if the National Yogurt Association Seal (shown below) indicates if a yogurt has enough bacteria in it to be beneficial.  Yes and No.  Yes, it does demonstrate that the amount of bacteria in the yogurt has over 100 million CFU per gram. However, no, because it only means that L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus are presentwhich as discussed before do not offer any therapeutic properties to your body.  The seal of approval is also very expensive which is why a lot of the smaller brands do not display the seal.  In fact, on a recent visit to the grocery store I noticed the only brands that carried the seal of approval were Yoplait and Dannon.  These particular varieties were full of sugar and did not have any other live strains in them.  What a waste of a yogurt……..


Let’s get back to Dannon Activia.  As a clinician I recognize it does have research behind it to support its claim, but as whole foods nutritionist I feel there are better options out there.  If you were to ask me, “Should I buy Go-Gurt or Activia,”  I would suggest Activia because at least there are some beneficial bacteria in it.  But if you were to ask me, “Nancy’s Plain Yogurt or Activia,”  I would say, “Hands down Nancy’s Yogurt.”  Nancy’s Plain Greek Yogurt contains four probiotic cultures while Activia only contains one.  Nancy’s also has no added sugars unlike Activia.   I tried finding a plain Activia yogurt but had no luck.  If you look at the ingredient lists there are less additives (in fact none!) in Nancy’s Yogurt compared to Activia’s, which I feel tends to be a better option for someone experiencing gut issues.  Call me crazy 🙂

I know some of you may want my personal recommendation for a high quality yogurt.  It is difficult to make an accurate recommendation because yogurt options vary by region. But if you must know, my top three favorite are….

wallaby2If you are not concerned with organic products then Chobani and Fage may be options for you as well.  Interestingly enough, I could not find whole milk plain Chobani yogurt in our supermarket but maybe it is in yours…

fage-usa-total-greek-183156 chobani

If you do not have these products in your supermarket that is okay.  Let’s go over what we discussed so you can pick a high quality yogurt in your own supermarket.  The key points to remember are:

  • Choose a yogurt with no added sugar or sugar substitute, aka plain yogurt.  If plain yogurt is a little too tart for you then add fruit or sweeten with your own honey which usually has less sugar than flavored yogurts.
  • Look for a yogurt with a variety of “Live and Active Cultures,” that go above and beyond just L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus.  This way you are getting a variety of probiotics that may be providing different health benefits.
  • Purchase organic and whole milk yogurt when possible
  • Yogurts with more protein tend to be more satisfying
  • Purchase those with the highest CFU’s.  If CFU’s are not listed (which usually they are not) then don’t hesitate to contact the company and ask if they have the info.

Lastly, if you want to have a little fun, try making your own yogurt at home.  Just make sure it contains beneficial bacteria 😉

Till next time,



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