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How to Choose The Best Yogurt for Your Health

Two Glasses of Yogurt, Berries and GranolaYogurt
is often marketed as a healthy food.

However, the sugar and flavorings added to many yogurts can
make them more like junk food.

For this reason, navigating the yogurt aisle of your grocery
store can be confusing.

Follow this guide to find out what to look for and what to
avoid when shopping for healthy yogurt.

Always Read the Label

Reading the label should always be your first step when
deciding what food to buy.

This is because reading the label is essential to knowing what
is really in your food.

On the outside, it may seem like all yogurts are the same.
However, if you know what to look for, the label on each yogurt
can tell a different story.

Ingredients List

Although all yogurts
start out as plain yogurt, they often contain a variety of
added ingredients, such as sugar, artificial flavors, dyes,
stabilizers and preservatives.

When possible, choose a yogurt without large amounts of added
ingredients. Instead, try to choose a yogurt with few
ingredients.

They should include milk, the bacterial cultures used to turn
milk into yogurt and not much else.

Ingredients are listed by weight, so avoid yogurts that have
sugar listed near the top.

Better yet, simply avoid all yogurts that have any type of
added sugar on the ingredients list.

Sugar can be listed under a
number of different names
, including sucrose, high fructose
corn syrup, fruit juice, cane sugar and agave nectar.

Nutrition Facts

The nutrition facts on the label can give you some of the most
specific information.

The serving size and calories per serving are listed at the
top. The nutrition facts can also tell you how many carbs, fat,
protein and sugar are in each serving.

Note that there may be more than one serving per container,
meaning there are more calories too.

Right now, the nutrition label does not distinguish added sugar
from naturally occurring sugar, which can make it difficult to
tell how much sugar has been added.

However, labeling guidelines have recently changed so that the grams of added
sugar per serving will also be listed on labels in the future.

The nutrition information will also tell you how much calcium
and vitamin D each yogurt serving contains.

Ideally, your yogurt will contain vitamin D and a significant
part of your daily calcium needs. This will be listed as
percentage of daily value (% DV) on the label.

For more information about how to read food labels, check out
this
article
.

Bottom Line: Reading the label is the first
thing you should do when choosing a yogurt. The nutrition
facts and ingredients list can tell you a lot about what’s in
your yogurt.

Avoid Added Sugar

Brunette Eating Plain Yogurt

The main culprit that turns yogurt from a healthy food into an
unhealthy one is
added sugar
.

The average American’s intake of added sugar has increased from
20 lbs (9 kg) of sugar per year in 1850 to over 160 lbs (73 kg)
per year by the early 2000s (1).

It’s estimated that sugar-sweetened beverages are responsible
for 40% of that increase. However, processed foods with added
sugar, including sweetened yogurts, help contribute to it
(1).

Eating too much sugar can be very damaging to health. Research
has linked it to the development of obesity, heart disease,
metabolic dysfunction, liver disease and type 2 diabetes, among
other problems (1, 2, 3).

Although yogurt already contains some natural sugar in the form
of lactose (milk sugar), food companies often add large amounts
of simple sugars to make yogurt taste sweeter.

Plain yogurt typically contains around 10–15 grams of carbs per
cup (245 grams), but flavored or sweetened yogurts can easily
contain more than 30 grams per serving (4).

To choose a healthy yogurt, pick the brands with the least
sugar per serving. This means as little as possible over the
10–15 grams per cup (245 grams) that is already present from
lactose.

Typically, the healthiest choice is plain, unflavored yogurt.
But if you don’t like plain yogurt, there are a few things you
can do instead.

One option is to sweeten it yourself with your favorite fresh
fruit.

You can also make your own chia seed yogurt to make plain
yogurt less tart. And, as a bonus, you’ll get extra protein,
fiber and healthy fats with the chia seeds.

It is as easy as mixing 2 cups (473 ml) of yogurt with 1.5–2
tablespoons (22–30 ml) of
chia seeds
and letting it sit overnight in the fridge.

Bottom Line: Added sugar can turn a health
food into a junk food. Choose plain yogurt when possible and
always read the label to find out if sugar has been added.

Low-Fat vs Full-Fat

Two Pots of Yogurt

Yogurt can be made from whole, low-fat or fat-free milk.

Health experts often recommend low-fat dairy products because
most people already eat more calories than they need.

As a result, most yogurts are made from low-fat or fat-free
milk.

However, reduced-fat yogurts typically contain the most sugar,
which is added to compensate for the loss of flavor from
fat.
So if you choose low-fat yogurt, be sure to look for one
without added sugar.

Full-fat yogurt is also available. Although it does contain
more calories than plain low-fat yogurt, that does not
necessarily make it a less healthy choice.

In fact, the fats found in full-fat dairy products may be
beneficial.

Dairy products contain some naturally occurring trans fats that
are unlike the harmful trans fats found in some processed
foods.

These fats, namely conjugated
linoleic acid
(CLA), are not considered harmful and may
even have some health benefits.

They may help reduce body fat and inflammation, reduce the risk
of heart disease, improve blood sugar control and fight cancer
cells in test tubes (5, 6, 7).

Both plain unsweetened low-fat and full-fat yogurts can be
healthy. Decide which type to eat based on your dietary habits,
food preferences and calorie goals.

Bottom Line: Yogurt can be made from
reduced-fat or full-fat milk. Reduced-fat yogurt is only
lower in calories if it has no added sugar. Both can be
healthy choices.

Look for Live Cultures

Healthy
probiotic bacteria
are used to make yogurt. They turn the
milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid, which causes the yogurt
to taste sour.

These probiotic bacteria, often referred to as “live cultures”
in yogurt, can offer a large number of health benefits.

Although research on probiotics is still in its infancy,
studies suggest that they can:

  • Improve symptoms of lactose
    intolerance
    (8).
  • Stimulate the immune system (9).
  • Significantly reduce symptoms of depression (10).
  • Reduce the risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in
    children and adults (11,
    12
    ).
  • Improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (13,
    14
    ).
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Other studies found that probiotic yogurt could help
lower cholesterol
, body weight and even inflammatory
markers (15).

Eating yogurt with the probiotic Bifidobacterium has
also been shown to improve bowel regularity in children and
women (16, 17).

All yogurts contain these live cultures initially, since they
are the ingredient that turns milk into yogurt.

However, the probiotic content of a yogurt can vary greatly
depending on a number of factors, including packaging methods
and storage conditions.

To get the most benefits from your yogurt, choose one with the
most probiotics. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to tell how
much each yogurt contains.

The National Yogurt Association offers a “Live and Active
Cultures” seal for yogurts that contain 100 million cultures
(bacteria) per gram at the time of testing. The seal looks like
this:

Live and Active Cultures Seal

Image Source: Fage.

However, getting the seal is expensive. Many brands opt to go
without it, even if they do meet the 100 million cultures per
gram qualification.

In fact, one report about independently tested yogurts found
that many brands without the seal contained well over 100
million cultures per gram (18).

The most important thing is to avoid yogurts that have been
heat-treated, or pasteurized after the probiotics are added.
Pasteurization kills the bacteria, which must be alive to
benefit you.

This is easy to find out because the labels of these yogurts
should say “heat-treated after culturing” (19).

Bottom Line: Probiotics are the friendly
bacteria that turn milk into yogurt. Look for yogurt with the
“Live and Active Cultures” seal and avoid yogurts that have
been pasteurized after production.

Which Type Is Better?

Two Jars of Yogurt with Berries

There are many different types of yogurt available, and here’s
how the different varieties compare.

Greek, Non-Dairy or Regular Yogurt?

Greek yogurt is the biggest trend in yogurt right now. It
differs from traditional yogurt because it is strained more
times, removing some of the whey and lactose.

This gives Greek yogurt about twice as much protein as
traditional yogurt and around half the carbs. It’s a great
option as a filling snack and for those who are lactose
intolerant (20).

However, this means Greek yogurt is also typically higher in
calories and fat and contains less calcium than traditional
yogurt.

Many brands are also filled with added sugar.

Dairy-free yogurts, such as soy or coconut yogurt, have also
become popular. Because they are plant-based, they are much
lower in fat than traditional yogurt and do not contain
lactose.

These are ideal choices for vegans and people with lactose
intolerance. However, they do not naturally contain
much calcium
, so be sure to check the label for a brand
with added calcium and vitamin D.

Greek yogurt, non-dairy and regular yogurt can all be healthy
options, but none is necessarily healthier than the others.

Organic or Not?

To carry the USDA organic seal, milk must be from cows fed
with organic, non-GMO feed and not treated with antibiotics or
growth hormones.

However, whether organic foods are better
or not
is highly debated, and the use of GMOs and growth
hormones in dairy farming remains extremely controversial.

The nutritional content of organic versus conventional foods is
controversial as well, although there do appear to be
differences when it comes to organic dairy.

For example, studies have found that organic milk has a better
fatty acid profile and higher beta-carotene, vitamin E and
iron
content
than conventional milk (21, 22).

However, it also appears that organic milk is lower in the
minerals selenium and iodine (22).

Interestingly, these differences are most likely due to
differences in the diet of the cows. They did not necessarily
depend on whether the farming practices were organic or
conventional (22, 23).

The fact is, it’s hard to say if organic really is better than
conventional when it comes to nutrition and health benefits.

Bottom Line: Greek yogurt has more protein
and fewer carbs, while dairy-free yogurt tends to have less
fat and no lactose. Organic yogurt may be richer in certain
nutrients, but lower in others.

A Few Yogurts to Try

While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are a few types
of yogurt that are healthy choices.

Stonyfield Organic

Stonyfield Greek Yogurt

Stonyfield Organic is a good brand to choose if you like to buy
organic. All of their yogurts are organic and they have many
different products to choose from.

They offer grass-fed, whole-milk yogurt, Greek yogurt and a
Smooth & Creamy line.

If you prefer flavored yogurt, their fruit-flavored Greek
yogurts are all great choices.

However, most of their other fruit-flavored yogurts do contain
added sugar.

Dannon All Natural

Dannon All Natural Plain Yogurt

Dannon’s All Natural line of yogurts is a good example of
healthy yogurt.

It has only two ingredients: low-fat or fat-free milk and
pectin, which is a natural thickener. It also carries the “Live
and Active Cultures” seal.

Unfortunately, this yogurt does not have vitamin D added.

However, with no added sugar, 8 grams of protein per serving
and 30% of your daily calcium needs, it is still a good choice.

The rest of Dannon’s yogurts, though popular, contain lots of
added sugar and therefore aren’t the healthiest yogurt choices.

Fage Total Plain

Fage Total Greek Yogurt

Fage is a great choice for those who enjoy Greek yogurt.

The Fage Total Plain line of yogurt contains only milk and a
variety of live cultures. It is also available in full-fat, 2%
and 0% varieties.

However, since it is a Greek yogurt, the calcium content is
lower than a regular yogurt would be, at about 20% of your
daily needs. It also doesn’t contain added vitamin D.

Still, it is a healthy choice.

But, like the other brands, stick to the plain varieties. The
brand’s flavored or fruit-added yogurts contain plenty of added
sugar.

Bottom Line: There are many brands of
healthy yogurt for you to try. Choose varieties with low or
no added sugar and a short list of ingredients.

When Choosing a Healthy Yogurt, Less Is More

When it comes to yogurt, keeping it healthy means keeping it
simple.

Try to pick a yogurt that has few ingredients and as little
added sugar as possible. Plain and unsweetened yogurt is best.

Apart from that, most choices are up to personal preference.

As long as you follow these tips, you can feel confident that
the yogurt you pick is a healthy and nutritious choice.

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