Dietitian Tips for Choosing a Healthier Yogurt

by Holley Grainger, MS, RD
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Dietitian Tips for Choosing a Healthier Yogurt

Now the darling of the dairy case, yogurt can be purchased in a variety of styles (traditional, whipped, Greek, Icelandic-style skyr) and forms (cartons, tubes, pouches and pints), not to mention endless flavors. Needless to say, the yogurt shelves in the dairy aisle don’t look quite like they used to, thanks to a surge in yogurt consumption over the last decade. According to recent retail data from the market research company IRI, yogurt sales have increased 7% since 2011 and are continuing to rise.

Yogurt touts a wealth of nutrients including protein, calcium and probiotics. From the health-conscious and culinarians to everyday people just looking for a tasty snack, consumers are choosing yogurt for its balanced nutrition, flavor and texture variety, portability, affordability and versatility.

With the boom in new yogurt brands, many consumers looking for a yummy snack or protein-rich breakfast option may feel overwhelmed or confused. By answering these quick questions, you’ll be able to make your next purchase with confidence.

Does Added Sugar Matter?
Sugar got you stumped? Know this: Yogurt contains lactose, a naturally occurring sugar found in milk and other dairy products. However, current nutrition labels only provide the total amount of sugar in a product, leaving consumers confused about the added sugar in flavored yogurt. New labels launching in mid-2018, however, will list the amount of added sugar. Until then, these numbers will help you determine how much added sugar is in a product:

  • Plain, whole-milk traditional yogurt has 10–15 grams of lactose per cup.
  • Plain, whole-milk Greek yogurt has 5–10 grams of lactose per cup.

As a rule of thumb, when purchasing traditional flavored yogurt, look for those with less than 22 grams of total sugar per cup. When purchasing Greek yogurt, look for ones with less than 15 grams of total sugar per cup. Also, make sure to read the label to ensure sugar is not listed as one of the first three ingredients (see the next question).

Takeaway: If you are trying to reduce your refined sugar consumption, choose plain yogurt and flavor it with fresh fruit, like this Mango-Pineapple Yogurt Bowl.

What Does the Ingredient List Tell Me?

Some yogurts, especially those marketed to children, not only have added sugar but also artificial colors and flavors. Skip those when you can. Also keep an eye out for added preservatives, thickeners and artificial sweeteners, and try to keep those to a minimum. A shorter ingredient list will ensure that you are getting all of the yogurt’s nutritional benefits without much of the fake stuff.

And, of course, if yogurt is loaded with cookies, candies or fruity syrups, consider that to be a dessert rather than a healthy food. Try to avoid products that list sugar or some form of sugar (like evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, invert sugar, evaporated juice concentrate, maple syrup, honey or high fructose corn syrup) high on the ingredient list. The first ingredient listed on the label has the highest quantity in the product. For example, nonfat yogurt’s first ingredient should be skim milk.

Takeaway: Read the ingredient list, and stick with a shorter one when possible. Be aware of preservatives, thickeners and artificial sweeteners, as well as added sugar.

Which Nutrients Are Important?

Even though Greek yogurt has a higher protein and lower natural sugar content than traditional yogurt, don’t discount good old-fashioned yogurt. Greek yogurt and Icelandic-style skyr are strained extensively to remove the liquid whey, creating a thicker yogurt. The straining process makes the protein content higher and the sugar content lower because some of the additional lactose is drained off. Unfortunately, a portion of the calcium is lost in the process, so choosing both styles ensures that you find a healthy balance of nutrition. And, of course, you can always add nutrient-rich ingredients like almonds and chia seeds for a nutritional boost.

Takeaway: For a higher-protein, lower-sugar option, choose Greek yogurt or skyr. For a higher-calcium yogurt, choose traditional. When reading the label, look for a yogurt that provides at least 15–20% of your daily value for calcium.

Does Fat Content Matter?

Science is always evolving. Recent research is touting the positive benefits of full-fat dairy products, which are rich in saturated fat. While full-fat dairy may play a role in reducing cardiovascular disease risk factors, increasing satiety and reducing the risk of becoming obese, it is still being studied. However, some newer research does open the door for some flexibility and choice for those who many want to enjoy some fuller-fat dairy as part of an overall balanced eating style.

Takeaway: Whether you choose full-fat/whole-milk, reduced-fat (2%) or nonfat (0%) yogurt, aim for balance in your total diet throughout the day.

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  • Judy

    When the yogurt ingredients list anything more than just organic whole milk and probiotics, I put it back on the shelf. Same goes for kefir! And sigh … the only place I can find them are at specialty grocery stores.