Yogurt pretty consistently gets a healthy rap. But is it legit? Should you keep on spooning up the creamy stuff for breakfast and between-meals snacks—or is yogurt another one of those sounds-good-for-you-but-really-isn’t foods?
Well, yogurt lovers, you can rest easy: In many cases, yogurt is indeed healthy. There are a few caveats, however. Along with the many, many nutritious, delicious options on store shelves, there are also plenty of products that don’t quite measure up. Let’s break it down.
First off, what is yogurt? By definition, yogurt is made from milk fermented with Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus and oftentimes other beneficial bacteria, aka probiotics, which aid with digestion, immunity and whole-body health. The fermentation process helps break down the carbohydrates in milk, including the sugar lactose, allowing for easier digestion, especially for those who are lactose intolerant. Like milk, yogurt contains calcium and vitamin B12, a key nutrient available only from animal products and fortified foods. It also supplies fat (unless it’s made with skim milk) and protein, helping to fill you up and fuel your brain and body.
Where yogurt’s health cred starts to waver is when you look into the added sugars. Plain yogurt typically has 12 to 17 grams of naturally occurring sugar per serving, yet even with that amount, it often still tastes sour or tart. To make it more palatable, many brands add sugar, either as straight sucrose or in the form of fruit flavorings, which can double the yogurt’s sugar tally. Fruit-on-the-bottom varieties, while they may sound healthy (yay, fruit!), are often made with syrupy fruit solutions verses whole fruit, sacking them with triple the sugar of plain yogurt. You’d be much wiser to pick a plain variety and stir in real raspberries, sliced strawberries or chopped bananas.
The skinny on fat
After years of shunning dietary fat, especially saturated, experts now emphasize its importance. So how does this translate to yogurt, which comes in full-fat, reduced-fat and nonfat versions? While saturated fat may not clog arteries as once thought—and we do need some of it in our diets—the American Heart Association and other nutrition-advisory groups still suggest capping consumption at about 13 grams per day (for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet). One serving of yogurt made with whole milk might deliver half that amount, leaving you without much room for more fat from your other meals.
Also consider that fat is highly caloric. Full-fat yogurts often have twice the calories of lower-fat options, sometimes hitting 200 calories a pop. As with saturated fat content, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing—so long as you have room for those calories in your daily diet. On the flip side, nonfat yogurts are much more likely to have added sugars to make up for the flavor lost with the stripped-out fat. Therefore, while you won’t be getting calories from fat, you could wind up with a lot of empty calories from sugar.
OK, considering all that, which is best: full-fat, low-fat or nonfat? There isn’t one surefire answer here, as it depends on your caloric needs and what other foods are present in your diet. But generally speaking, many dietitians suggest reduced-fat yogurt as a happy medium. You get a bit of fat for flavor and satiation, but not nearly as much as in whole-milk yogurt, and if you read labels carefully, you can find options without a sky-high amount of sugar.
In recent years, Greek yogurt has risen from niche to health-food star—and with good reason. Because it is strained to remove the liquid way, Greek yogurt has a thicker consistency and contains more protein than regular yogurt, sometimes double the amount. The straining process also extracts some sugar (good!) as well as calcium and other nutrients (not so good), leaving Greek yogurt with less of the sweet stuff but fewer vitamins and minerals (although some brands add those missing nutrients back in). To sum it up, Greek yogurt has some real advantages over regular yogurt but also some disadvantages. Overall, though, the two types are pretty similar nutritionally.
By and large, yogurt can be a very healthy part of your diet. Plain is usually a smarter choice than flavored options, but always read the ingredients list and Nutrition Facts panel on any product you’re considering to keep an eye on added sugars. Also be mindful of fat. If you’re looking to yogurt as a key source of fat in your daily menu, whole-milk options may be fine. But if you want less fat and fewer calories, choose a yogurt made with 1 percent or 2 percent milk that doesn’t contain a ton of added sugar.