How to Buy the Best Yogurt

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 percent 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.

Fillers and ExtrasOther ingredients that you may find on the ingredients label include:
  • Additional dairy products, such as nonfat dry milk solids, casein and whey protein are added to boost the nutrition profile (especially calcium or protein), and to improve the flavor and texture or reduced-fat yogurts.
  • Colorings are added for aesthetic reasons only.
  • Gelatin and/or pectin act as stabilizers. Vegetarians should keep in mind that gelatin comes from animals (unless otherwise stated on the label), but pectin comes from plants.
  • Caloric sweeteners, such as sugar, honey, maple syrup, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. Some yogurts contain multiple types of sweeteners. Most low-fat and fat-free yogurts contain more sweeteners than full-fat yogurts, in order to improve taste and flavor.
  • Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, acesulfame potassium or neotame. These are common in "diet" yogurts and "sugar-free" or "no sugar added" varieties.
  • Inulin (chicory root) is a fiber extracted from chicory roots. Humans don't have the enzyme necessary to break it down, so it's poorly absorbed and acts as fiber (indigestible plant matter). Research has shown that inulin may boost the growth of friendly bacteria in the colon, and is therefore considered a prebiotic. However, research is limited regarding inulin and health and some people can experience adverse digestive reactions when they consume too much of it. Do not rely on yogurt fortified with inulin to have the same health benefits as a high fiber diet.
  • Probiotics are the "good" bacteria that help promote a healthy digestive system. Two such bacteria cultures, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus are used to make all yogurts. The National Yogurt Association (NYA) developed a "Live and Active Cultures" seal to identify a yogurt that contains 100 million cultures per gram at the time of manufacturing. Yogurt companies must pay several thousand dollars each year to use this seal on their products. Smaller yogurt companies may not participate due to the high cost of using the seal, even though they may contain live and active cultures. These days, several yogurt companies are now putting additional probiotics and cultures (such as Bifidobacterium BB-12) into their yogurts and making claims regarding immunity and digestive health. These cultures are safe for consumption, and some research shows that they may improve the health of the immune and digestive systems. Keep in mind that eating a yogurt with added probiotics could be one of many ways to enhance your immune system or improve digestive function. Research has shown that regular yogurt (without additional probiotics) can enhance the immune and digestive systems, too.
  • Omega-3s, such as DHA, are added to some yogurts, but there is very little evidence that DHA prevents memory loss or boosts your intelligence as the yogurt label and advertising may indicate. Furthermore, the amount of DHA added to these yogurts is minimal (about 32 milligrams). Don’t be taken in by this slick marketing.

Shopping Tips: What to Look for on the Label

The following guidelines will help with locating 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:
  • Less than 180 calories. For those following a lower calorie diet for weight loss, 120 calories is preferred.
  • Less than 4 grams of fat. A yogurt made with whole milk will contain 7-9 grams of fat; a low -fat yogurt contains 2-4 grams, and a non-fat variety has 0 grams fat.
  • Less than 30 grams of sugar. Keep in mind that the milk used to make yogurt naturally contains about 12 grams of milk sugar per 6-ounce serving. These naturally occurring sugars are grouped with the added sugars when you read the nutrition facts label for "Sugars." If you prefer "natural" sweeteners (honey, maple syrup, etc.), sugar substitutes, sugar alcohols or standard sweeteners like regular sugar or high fructose corn syrup, read the ingredients list to find out which type(s) of added sweetener your yogurt contains.
  • At least 5 grams of protein.
  • At least 20 percent of your daily value (DV) of calcium.
  • At least 10 percent of your daily value (DV) of vitamin D. Some yogurts are fortified with vitamin D, which enhances calcium absorption and promotes bone health.
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 will 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:
  • Look for non-fat or low-fat Greek yogurt. A 6-ounce portion should have no more than 150 calories and 2.5 grams of total fat.
  • The 6-ounce portion of flavored Greek yogurt should also contain no more than 20 grams of sugar, as listed on the nutrition label.

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.

Yogurts We Like

The following 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.

  • Blend up a yogurt-based smoothie. While 1/2 cup of your favorite yogurt, half a banana and half a cup of milk until smooth.
  • Sprinkle granola or your favorite cold cereal over a bowl of yogurt for a hearty breakfast. Add fresh or dried fruits and nuts to round out the meal.
  • Use fruity yogurt instead of syrup on waffles and pancakes.
  • In recipes, substitute plain yogurt for mayonnaise, sour cream, cream cheese and cottage cheese to cut calories and fat but retain moisture and creaminess.
  • Use yogurt as the base for your favorite dips for fruits and vegetables.
  • Make your own yogurt cheese! This is a great replacement for cream cheese, sour cream and mayonnaise. Line a large strainer with a paper coffee filter and place it over a large bowl. Add two cups of plain yogurt to the lined strainer. Cover and refrigerate for eight or more hours. The liquid will drain into the bowl, leaving the thick yogurt "cheese" you can use in dips, spreads and baked goods.
  • For a spread, combine yogurt cheese with jam, jelly, or cinnamon and sugar. For a vegetable dip, combine with your favorite cheese, herbs and spices. Substitute yogurt cheese for higher-fat ingredients in baked goods, cheesecake, and pies.
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.