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How To Choose The Healthiest Yogurt

The word “yogurt” is thought to stem from the Turkish word “yog˘urmak,” which means to thicken, coagulate, or curdle. Thousands of years ago people discovered that carrying milk in bags made of animal intestines caused the milk to curdle and sour into yogurt, preserving it for extended periods of time. Today yogurt is produced by adding two bacteria strains to pasteurized milk:  Streptococcus thermophiles and Lactobacillus bulgaricus.  These bacteria produce the characteristic yogurt flavor and aroma, and also improve digestion and absorption of protein, calcium, and phosphorus naturally present in milk.1 Other bacteria strains, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei and Bifidobacterium bifidus, are often added to yogurt to boost the immune system, lower cholesterol levels, and help maintain a healthy digestive system.2

Health benefits of yogurt

Yogurt from cow’s milk contains good amounts of protein, potassium, B12, calcium, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, thiamin, and riboflavin. Vitamin D is in some types of yogurt, but not all. Be sure to read the nutrition facts label for Vitamin D content since it can vary widely.2

Consuming higher amounts of dairy products, including yogurt, decreases cholesterol and blood pressure levels which play a role in cardiovascular disease. People who consume more yogurt also have less insulin resistance, a key factor in type 2 diabetes. Some research studies show that consuming more dairy products and yogurt is an important factor in weight loss.3

New research on the role of saturated fat in cardiovascular disease shows that the type of saturated fatty acids found in dairy products, including yogurt, may promote health. One of the central recommendations to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease has been to decrease saturated fat intake. As scientists learn more about individual saturated fatty acids, it’s becoming clear that the type of fat in milk and yogurt does not appear to increase risk of cardiovascular disease.3 However, higher fat yogurt also contains more calories. The current recommendation from the American Heart Association is to choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products including yogurt as part of an overall eating plan that focuses on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean sources of protein, and choosing foods higher in mono-unsaturated fat such as olives, olive oil, canola oil, and nuts.4

Yogurt with live and active cultures is a good source of probiotics that help boost our immune system and improve digestion. The National Yogurt Association developed a voluntary Live & Active Cultures seal to help consumers easily recognize which types of yogurt contain at least 100 million cultures of bacteria per gram at the time of manufacture.5

Caution! Added sugar in yogurt

We like to believe that all types of yogurt are packed with healthy nutrients, but what we often don’t realize is that the vast majority of yogurt contains added sugar. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to no more than 10% of total calorie intake, or no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day for women and 37.5 grams (or 9 teaspoons) per day for men to promote overall good health and reduce risk of chronic disease.6 Current food labels do not separate naturally occurring sugars, such as the lactose in milk and yogurt, from added sugars. On average, most brands of regular yogurt contain 15-16 grams of naturally occurring sugar from lactose per cup.  Greek yogurt contains less naturally occurring sugar because much of the lactose is removed when the yogurt is strained to make it thicker. Most brands of Greek yogurt contain 6-9 grams of naturally occurring sugar per cup. Until the food labels are updated to clearly identify the exact amount of added sugar, the best we can do is estimate added sugar per cup by subtracting 15 from the total amount of sugar in flavored regular yogurt, and subtracting 8 from the total amount of sugar in flavored Greek yogurt. Since yogurt comes in many different sizes, you’ll need to adjust the math accordingly. For regular flavored yogurt in 4-oz containers, subtract 7 from the total amount of sugar; for flavored Greek yogurt in 4 oz containers subtract 4 from the total amount of sugar.

Some yogurt manufacturers are using less added sugar in their products; for example, Yoplait notes on their website that the sugar in their original strawberry flavored yogurt have been lowered from 26 grams to 18 grams.7 That’s a decrease of 8 grams or 1.5 teaspoons of sugar.

To reduce the amount of added sugar, some types of yogurt contain sugar substitutes such as stevia, acesulfame potassium, sucralose or aspartame, sometimes in addition to sugar.

Follow these 5 steps to choose the healthiest, most nutrient-dense yogurt for you and your family.

  1. Look for the Live & Active Cultures seal to make sure the yogurt contains significant amounts of helpful probiotics.
  2. Choose plain, unflavored yogurt to avoid added sugar and flavorings. Add fresh or unsweetened frozen fruit for natural sweetness and additional vitamins, minerals and fiber.
  3. Compare the grams of sugar in flavored yogurt and choose types with the least amount of sugar.
  4. Read the label for the vitamin D content. Vitamin D is added to milk, but is not automatically in all types of yogurt. Vitamin D increases calcium absorption for strong bones, and also is important for immune function, cell growth, and reducing inflammation.8
  5. Read the list of ingredients. Flavored yogurt with 100 calories or less per serving typically contains sugar substitutes for sweetening. Avoid yogurt with added colorings and dyes.


  1. History of yogurt and current patterns of consumption. Mauro Fisberg and Rachel Machado Nutrition Reviews. VR Vol. 73(S1):4–7 http://nutritionreviews.oxfordjournals.org/content/nutritionreviews/73/suppl_1/4.full.pdf
  2. Dairy Council of California. Yogurt Nutrition. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/ accessed 7-24-16
  3. Yogurt and dairy product consumption to prevent cardiometabolic diseases: epidemiologic and experimental studies. Arne Astrup. Am J Clin Nutr May 2014 vol. 99 no. 5 1235S-1242S
  4. American Heart Association. Frequently asked questions about saturated fats. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Frequently-Asked-Questions-About-Saturated-Fats_UCM_463756_Article.jsp#.V5V-97grL4c  updated 10-7-2015. Accessed 7-22-16.
  5. National Yogurt Association. http://www.aboutyogurt.com/ accessed 7-23-16
  6. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/ accessed 7-23-16
  7. Yoplait Original Strawberry Yogurt. http://www.yoplait.com/product/regular-original-strawberry accessed 7-28-16
  8. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/ updated 2-11-16. Accessed 7-24-16

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