I was at the grocery store just the other day, looking for the same old yogurt I've been eating for years. I couldn't believe the options now available. I found low-fat, non-fat, light, fiber added, Greek, Swiss, whipped, drinkable, organic, frozen, with granola, almond milk based, and soymilk based! Some of these choices are simply a matter of personal taste, but there are differences worth discussing. The origins of yogurt are unknown. Perhaps milk became infected through contact with plants, or bacteria were transferred from a yak, goat, or camel udder. Ancient Indian writings refer to the combination of yogurt and honey as the "food of the gods." Persian tradition holds that Abraham regularly ate yogurt. Yogurt has been a staple in Eastern Europe, often in the form of kefir. Yogurt was introduced to the United States in the early twentieth century, and it has now become a common part of the American diet. Yogurt is a fermented form of curdled milk, similar to sour cream, but with less fat. Domestic yogurt producers typically heat milk to about 80 degrees to kill undesirable bacteria, and then add the desirable bacterial cultures (such as lactobacillus, bulgaricus, streptococcus, and sometimes lactobacilli and bifidobacteria). When the lactose in milk ferments, lactic acid is produced, which thickens the milk to a creamy texture, and adds a tang to the flavor. Even without adding back the beneficial bacteria, if we were to heat fresh milk at home for a few hours, it would become yogurt. Some yogurts can help with digestive health and ease constipation, diarrhea, and other intestinal problems. However, yogurts are not all equal: which ones are the most healthful? Keep in mind that yogurt itself is cultured milk, and even milk alone, which contains ample amounts of calcium and protein, has plenty of solid nutritional value. *If the label states that it contains "live active cultures," the yogurt also contains probiotics. Probiotics are living microorganisms that improve lactose digestion and discourage undesirable bacteria from overgrowing in our digestive system. For yogurt to offer the benefit of probiotics, it must contain at least 100 million cultures per gram. Frozen yogurt must contain 10 million cultures per gram. *Regardless of whether the yogurt contains active cultures, choose a non-fat or low-fat, plain and unflavored yogurt, with vitamin D and at least 200 mg of calcium. Plain yogurt is available that has just two ingredients: milk and live cultures! If the yogurt is sweetened, stay under 15 grams per serving of sugar. It's easy to choose a plain yogurt and add your own fresh fruit, and to avoid those with high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. Avoid heat-treated yogurt, as this process lengthens the product's shelf life but kills the good bacteria. Now, back to some of the choices I was faced with on those grocery shelves: Greek Yogurt differs from traditional yogurts in how it is processed. Greek yogurt goes through more straining, which removes more whey and yields a creamier texture. As a result, it provides less calcium but more protein. Frozen yogurt may or may not contain live active cultures; freezing has no effect on them. It tastes great, but unless it has probiotics, with the "live active cultures" label, it may have no digestive benefits. Soy based yogurt is a good alternative for those who avoid dairy products. The amounts of protein, calories and probiotics are similar to other yogurt. Whipped yogurts and yogurt drinks are more expensive and often have more sugar and less protein than other yogurts. It's clear that yogurt is a nutritionally rich food, high in protein, calcium, riboflavin, and vitamins B6 and B12. It's generally easy to digest for those who are lactose intolerant, because the lactose is converted to glucose and galactose, and is fermented. It offers non-fat, low-fat or whole-fat choices. Due to its calcium content, it helps to prevent osteoporosis. For all of us, including children, it is a balanced source of protein, fats, carbohydrates, and minerals, and it's gentle for those with aging intestines. When it contains active cultures, it offers great probiotic benefits. The next time that you are "in the market" for yogurt, I suggest that you read the labels and take a close, informed look at all of your choices! Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: Oct. 24, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 28