Ah, yogurt. A simple staple food, around for hundreds of years, has somehow gotten complicated.
You can now peruse the yogurt section for hours, reading labels as you try to choose the best option. Do you go Greek? Regular? Drinkable? Full-fat or fat-free? Flavored or plain? Grass-fed? Non-dairy?
Do I even need yogurt?
It’s enough to frustrate you into skipping that section altogether.
It’s true—there are more options than ever before. But options are a good thing as long as you know what to look for.
The bottom line: Yogurt can be a great food to incorporate daily.
It’s an excellent source of probiotics, those beneficial bacteria for gut health, and it packs plenty of protein, calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamins B6 and B12.
It has even been shown to help prevent Type 2 diabetes.
Yogurt is made from milk and then fermented with live bacteria cultures that feed on the lactose, the sugar in milk. For those with lactose intolerance, this makes it easier to digest.
Greek yogurt is made when traditional yogurt is strained longer to remove the whey. It’s thicker than traditional yogurt, with higher protein, fewer carbs and less calcium.
Kefir yogurt is a drinkable yogurt made with kefir grains for the bacteria culture. It’s often 99 percent lactose-free and it’s the best source of probiotics.
Personal preferences on flavor and nutrition goals should steer your choice.
Here’s a guide on what to look for when working through the yogurt aisle:
Simple is better
When possible, go for plain. The ideal yogurt does not have any added ingredients beyond the milk and bacteria cultures. Anything flavored is bound to have added sugars or artificial flavors and sweeteners.
Keep in mind, yogurt naturally contains sugar, which means anything over 8 to 12 grams of sugar would come from added sugars. For many flavored brands, you might as well be having a bowl of ice cream with the amount of sugar added.
Doctor it up
For most, plain yogurt will not do the trick. Start with the plain and add your own ingredients.
Top favorites include fresh or frozen fruits, nuts and seeds, granola and honey. Yogurt is also great in smoothies, used in place of sour cream or mayo, or used to make salad dressing or veggie dips.
If you have lactose intolerance, you should be able to tolerate most yogurts. However, those with more severe lactose intolerance may want to look for yogurts that are labeled lactose-free.
Several brands have a lactose-free variety. This means you do not have to cut it out completely.
Grass fed or organic
My rule of thumb: “You eat what you eat eats.” In other words, the nutritional quality of any animal product can be affected by what the animals has been fed.
Grass-fed products will ensure the animal ate a natural diet, which could improve the nutritional quality of the milk. Organic will also ensure there are no added antibiotics or hormones. It’s also better for the environment.
If you’re OK with spending a little extra, go for grass-fed and organic items.
Low-fat or full-fat
While it is true that whole milk is high in saturated fat—and saturated fat increases cholesterol—findings suggest that full-fat yogurt does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Whole milk yogurt can be enjoyed in moderation by some, while others may prefer low-fat for reducing calories.
For those who choose to follow a vegan diet or have dairy allergies or intolerances, dairy-free yogurt is a nice option. These items still provide beneficial probiotic bacteria and are an easy snack.
The drawback is that the yogurts made from nut milk generally do not have protein and most non-dairy yogurts are loaded with sugar. If you choose to go this route, opt for unsweetened.