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Nutrition Articles  ›  Meals and Food

How to Buy the Best Yogurt

Navigate the Dairy Case with Confidence

-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian
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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.
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

  • If yogurt contains sugar, is it really good for you - 2/22/2014 10:58:35 AM
  • I also make homemade Greek yogurt with 1% milk, flavored with vanilla and a bit of honey. I put it on a pile of frozen rasp/black/bluebe
    rries with a bit of granola for breakfast most mornings. Delicious!

    I am disappointed that the article fails to mention something rather important, though. Fat-free yogurt does you almost no good when it comes to the vit D and calcium - fat is needed to absorb the vit D, and the vit D is needed to absorb the calcium. It's a Fat-D-Calcium triangle.

    Even if you're trying to lose weight, a 6oz serving of Dannon whole-milk plain yogurt is 120 cal, only 40 cal more than the fat free - it's easy enough to cut those 40 calories out elsewhere if you need to (or burn them off). The low-fat is 100cal, so only 20 cals to cut or burn there.

    As to the 6g fat - well, again, Fat-D-Calcium triangle. The fat-free diet has been debunked, so since you need some fat anyhow, may as well get it from yogurt. And the low-fat Dannon is only 2.5g fat so you get the benefit without as much of the ...whatever scares people about dairy fat.

    Lastly, a word on Greek yogurt and calcium: There is calcium lost in the straining process, but by my calculations (subtracting what is in the resulting volume of whey [http://ndb.nal.u
    sda.gov/ndb/f
    oods/show/101] from what was in the original volume of milk), you retain about 60% of the calcium that was in the milk to start with. However, since it is condensed, you actually (or should, anyhow) wind up with more calcium in the Greek yogurt than in the starting milk on a volume for volume basis (ie. 6oz volume of Greek yogurt has more calcium in it than a 6oz volume of the milk it was made from). (addl. refs.: http://ndb.nal.us
    da.gov/ndb/fo
    ods/show/107 and http://ndb.nal.us
    da.gov/ndb/fo
    ods/show/78 - each adjusted to/based on a 6oz serving, with 13g protein per serving required to be considered Greek yogurt. And which makes me wonder how it is that Fage, Chobani, and others only have 20%DV calcium when - purely on the maths - they should have 30% or more. Between that and the expense of i... - 12/31/2013 5:30:52 PM
  • JANETEMILY
    Amen to the person who mentioned skyr or Icelandic style yogurt. It is delicious, very thick and creamy. Saw Siggi's in the Target a couple of weeks ago and glad I tried it. Their berry flavors have only 110 calories and 11 grams of sugar. Love mine with extra berries and a couple of tablespoons of wheat germ! - 10/27/2013 3:26:37 PM
  • I had a cup of Yoplait with granola for breakfast. It's regular ol' red and white carton Yoplait (apple crisp flavor!) and it fits within the guidelines given in this article, which makes me feel better about not buying light. :) - 10/10/2013 2:37:58 PM
  • I ate yogurt and enjoyed it until i found out how much salt it contains I will still eat it but be more careful how often. - 9/29/2013 11:53:08 PM
  • YAHOO95
    Even though this is an older article it popped up in my email so thought I'd comment. I love real Greek yogurt but the junk in the stores is nothing like it (at least 99% aren't). It's so easy to make your own in the old days we put it in a cheap styrofoam icechest (in jars of course) and it kept it warm enough. The crockpot method is great also. I just use organic plain (no fillers) as a starter. If you get one with pectin gelatin etc it won't work as well. Once it's ready just drain it and it's very close to traditional Greek. Drain it more and you have yogurt cheese. Also I use lowfat - not only is it firmer and more flavorful, there are some studies indicating that dairy fat (in moderation) has benefits. (Of course if you are dairy adverse this doesn't apply to you - I know there will be comments about avoiding dairy). I make enough for my dogs and me and it costs about 10% of prepared yogurt. For nonGreek, it's almost 1:1, ie 1 quart of millk makes about 1 quart of yogurt. Check the price for 32 oz yogurt versus 32 oz milk and you'll be shocked. If you compare to individual serving pricing, switching to homemade saves a ton of money. If you want flavored use real fruit (not preserves), a little honey if you need it sweet. I find homemade is not as tart so no need for additions - you'll need to experiment with temp and times to finetune the flavor strength and texture. - 9/29/2013 7:15:15 PM
  • I make my own yogurt using Yogourmet freeze dried yogurt starter and 2% milk. The calories are 135 per cup if I add no flavoring. Less expensive as well. - 9/29/2013 9:48:04 AM
  • My favorite is Fage - it was my favorite brand when I lived in Greece, and I was thrilled when I found it in the US! The texture is amazing, and the only ingredients are yogurt cultures and milk from farms that don't use rBST. I mix it with pumpkin puree, cinnamon, vanilla extract, nutmeg, oats, walnuts, and a pinch of sweetener for a fabulous breakfast! - 7/11/2013 1:03:05 AM
  • I would have loved to see skyr (Icelandic) included in this article. My favorite (all natural) brand is Siggi's and only 100 calories a carton (nonfat flavors), high in protein, and even thicker than Greek yogurts. - 7/10/2013 5:40:34 PM
  • This was very informative, thank you! Loved the tip about making yogurt cheese, going to try that today. - 7/10/2013 10:54:28 AM
  • I love the nonfat Greek yogurt from Costco. It is the best tasting in my opinion and costs less than the big brands. - 7/10/2013 12:36:33 AM
  • For those who aren't lovers of yoghurt, eating unpasteurised fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, provide vastly greater levels of probiotics than yoghurt, kefir etc. The fermented foods need to be unpasteurised because that process kills the very bacteria you are wanting to consume by having these foods. Many countries have cultured foods, especially vegetables, so look around for different foods from various countries and find some you like. - 6/18/2013 8:17:43 PM
  • just checked my favorite yogurt, and happy to say it passes the test! coburn farms low-fat vanilla. i get it at save-a-lot, and i swear every time i eat it i double-check to make sure more sugar and calories havent magically appeared. it is SO GOOD. - 6/6/2013 2:57:15 AM
  • I love all the comments from people saying to make your own yogurt. My husband and I have discussed it, and I may have to give it a try soon.

    But, I have made my own "Greek" yogurt, or yogurt cheese as I learned it. One of the previous commenters (ASCENDER) describes how to do this with homemade yogurt (cheese cloth and a strainer or colander), but this can easily be accomplished with store bought plain yogurt as well. I personally make it with low-fat as I like the flavor better, but it does work with non-fat and, of course, whole milk yogurt. Much cheaper and you control how creamy it is and what you add to it. - 1/15/2013 5:46:22 PM
  • This is an interesting article, but perhaps it is time for the authors to revise. Perhaps including additional products that have become more popular during the past 2 years would be helpful - the Greek Yogurt industry has exploded, and there are so many brands out there.

    Also, it would be interesting for the author to address non-dairy alternatives, such as soy and coconut milk based yogurts. - 12/29/2012 7:28:26 AM