Is yoghurt a health food or a junk food?

It’s common knowledge that yoghurt is good for you, with lots of probiotics and calcium usually included. But many yoghurts seem more like desserts than health foods. It can be hard to tell if your tasty sweet treat is just that, or actually has the nutritional value many brands claim. Is yoghurt such a great health food, or is it junk food in disguise?

Not all yoghurt is the same. Read on to learn how to cut through all of the marketing and the overwhelming number of yoghurt products on supermarket shelves to find the genuinely healthy yoghurts.

What is yoghurt?

Yogurt and spoon

Yoghurt is a food made by fermenting milk with bacteria. These bacteria, called ‘yoghurt cultures’, ferments the lactose into lactic acid. The lactic acid then acts on the milk protein to produce yoghurt’s texture and tang. While it’s usually made out of cow’s milk, yoghurt is also made using milk from goats, sheep, camels, yaks, water buffalo and even horses. Yoghurt can be made from plant-based milks as well, with coconut, soy, and almond milk yoghurts popular for vegans and those with dairy allergies.

What types of yoghurt are there?

There are many different types of yoghurts, with different processes and ingredients used in different parts of the world. Below we’ve explained some of the most common and popular types you’ll find in supermarkets and health food stores.

Natural/plain yoghurt

The original type of yoghurt, natural or plain type yoghurt doesn’t usually contain any added flavouring or sugar. However, you should check the label – some brands aren’t exactly upfront about added sugar.

Greek-style yoghurt

Greek style yoghurts are made by straining out much of the whey, which creates a thicker, stronger tasting yoghurt with a higher protein content. Some also contain added thickeners, such as cream, milk solids, gelatine or gums to create a creamier texture. Greek yoghurts generally have a lower sugar content, but a higher fat content. There are some very low-fat Greek-style yoghurts available.

Flavoured and sweetened yoghurt

Strawberry yogurt and strawberries

Many natural and Greek-style yoghurts can be bought with added sugar, flavourings and fruit bits (which may or may not be real fruit). It’s important to note that many desserts that might seem like yoghurt products (e.g. YoGo) are not yoghurt, but often custards or puddings.

Coconut yoghurt

Recently, everyone’s gone crazy for coconuts with coconut water, coconut milk, coconut oil, and coconut cream flying off shelves. Along with these, yoghurt made out of coconut is becoming more and more popular. While it’s a tasty alternative for vegans and the lactose-intolerant, it lags behind its dairy counterpart in terms of nutritional value. Coconut yoghurt is high in fat content, with double the kilojoules of many full-fat milk yoghurts, and has a low calcium content. Some brands may add calcium.

Soy yoghurt

The traditional alternative for those with lactose intolerance, dairy allergies, or a vegan diet, soy yoghurt is usually available in a limited range in supermarkets with more options usually available at health food and specialty stores. It has a lower fat content compared to full-fat milk yoghurt. Plain soy yoghurt usually doesn’t have much or any added sugar, while flavoured or fruit types vary by brand. Soy yoghurt can be a good source of calcium and protein.

Lactose free yoghurt

To make lactose-free yoghurt, an enzyme is added which breaks down lactose into simple sugars. This makes it easier for lactose-intolerant digestive systems to handle it. Lactose-free yoghurt is generally available at major supermarkets.

Kefir yoghurt

Made and consumed in Russia and Central Asia for centuries, kefir yoghurt is made with kefir grains, a type of yeast/bacterial fermentation starter. Commercially, powdered kefir starters are often used.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are ‘friendly’ bacteria that serve important roles in the digestive and immune systems. They help digestion and absorption of nutrients, fight harmful microorganisms, and help immune function. Disease, stress, poor diet, or antibiotics can upset the balance of bacteria and microorganisms in your digestive tract, which can cause bloating and discomfort.

Is yoghurt a good source of probiotics?

Jug and glass of kefir,

There isn’t yet evidence to prove that probiotics in yoghurt make it to the gut intact in any significant quantities. If you’re suffering from gut problems or bloating, it’s much better to see a doctor than just try to fix it by stuffing yourself with yoghurt.

Not all yoghurts contain proper probiotics – look for ‘live and active cultures’ on the label. Many yoghurts are labelled with the amount of probiotic cultures added in, however, this may not be the amount left in the product when you eat it. Some brands heat-treat yoghurt after culturing to make it last longer on the shelf and taste less tart, but this kills off bacteria including the good probiotic ones. Storage, air, light, and moisture can also kill off probiotics between leaving the factory and arriving in your fridge.

Is yoghurt healthy?

It depends on the product, how much you eat, and what your particular nutritional needs are. Generally speaking, a healthy yoghurt can be a good source of calcium, vitamin D and protein. There’s even some research indicating a link between probiotics and mental health, although this research is still in early stages.

You can use yoghurt as a healthier replacement for sour cream, cream and ice cream in cooking and desserts. For example, instead of serving dessert with ice cream or cream, choose a low-sugar high-protein yoghurt. Yoghurt can often be used instead of sour cream in recipes such as enchiladas, baked potatoes, or tandoori. It’s also a popular ingredient to make creamy smoothies.

Choosing a fruit yoghurt might seem like a great way to get even more nutrients in, but many yoghurts use ‘fake’ fruit. Check the ingredients list to make sure you’re getting a yoghurt with actual fruit, not artificial fruit made of sugar and colouring. The best way to get a fruity fix with your yoghurt is to add fresh fruit yourself, but that’s not always convenient.

You can boost the nutritional content of your yoghurt by adding in a tablespoon of ground flaxseed with each serve, to add fibre and omega-3s.

How do I know if yoghurt is healthy?

yogurt

Ignore the marketing and go straight for the nutrition label. It’s important to take care when reading nutrition tables. Different products, even packaging of the same product, can have different serving sizes. This can make it difficult to directly compare the nutritional value of different yoghurts. The easiest way to get around this is to use the column for nutritional values per 100g of yoghurt.

  • Sugar – The nutrition table can be a bit misleading, as yoghurt contains naturally occurring lactose (milk sugar). Look at how far up the list sugar is on the ingredients list, as this is ordered by the proportion of each ingredient in the product. Some yoghurts use artificial sweeteners such as aspartame instead.
  • Calcium – According to the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, it is recommended that adults consume at least 1,000mg of calcium each day. Most dairy yoghurt brands contain between 100mg and 230mg of calcium per 100g.
  • Fat – No fat can often mean lots of added sugar instead, so check the sugar content before buying a low or no fat yoghurt. A little bit of fat is okay, as long as you don’t overdo it.
  • Protein – Even if you’re not a bodybuilder, protein is vital for healthy body functioning. It also helps you feel fuller for longer and can be used as a source of energy for the body. A high protein yoghurt can make a good filling breakfast or snack.
  • Probiotics – Look for ‘live and active cultures’ on the label. If you’re having ongoing digestive issues, don’t rely on probiotics in yoghurt – see a doctor.
  • Vitamin D – This plays a key role in maintaining blood calcium levels and keeping bones healthy. While most people can get enough vitamin D through daily exposure to sunshine, having a vitamin D boost along with your calcium is a good idea. Yoghurt doesn’t naturally contain vitamin D, but some companies add it in.

Should I eat yoghurt?

Even though there are some pretty healthy yoghurts out there, it’s not the only way to get your nutritional needs met with something tasty. It can be a convenient way to get a good dose of calcium and protein, and may make your stomach feel a bit better if it’s prone to upsets. But if you’re not a fan of yoghurt, don’t worry! Your calcium needs can be met with other dairy products or plant products such as legumes, fortified soy products, certain nuts and broccoli.

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