Yogurt has a millennial-long association with healthiness, but in the US, flavors challenge yogurt’s true healthiness.
Yogurt’s Healthy History
Yogurt is often described as the oldest processed food because its origin traces back to The Neolithic Era of The Stone Age.
- Genghis Khan reportedly gave his warriors yogurt to instill strength and bravery in the 12th C
- Suleiman the Magnificent his friend Francois I, the King of France, a doctor in 1542 who prescribed yogurt to successfully cure Francois of digestion ails
In US, Yogurt is for Breakfast AND Dessert
Despite yogurt’s long history, it didn’t become popular in the US until the mid-20th Century when Dannon experienced commercial success with its fruit on the bottom line.
Dannon’s fruit on the bottom product aligned with US consumers’ tastes and preferences. Americans like yogurt “thicker, sweeter and milder,” summarized Dannon USA President Patrick Gurney in 1992.
After Dannon’s success, other manufacturers followed suit. By the 1980s, yogurt sales experienced 19 percent annual growth largely due to introductions of yogurts with fruit and flavors like vanilla. “Sundae-Style” commonly described fruit-on-the-bottom yogurts. Dannon even introduced Sprinkleins-yogurt with sprinkles- in 1992 targeting children.
Flavor Me This
Today, flavored yogurt makes up 89% of yogurt’s product offerings in US grocery stores:
- Dessert: Flavors with adjectives and names including candy, cocktails and traditional desserts like mousse, meringue and pie.
- Plain: 100% plain yogurts (does not include plain yogurts with add ins)
- Fruit: Any name that includes only fruit (single to multiple) with one or two including cinnamon and cardamon in the name as well
However, the distribution of flavors is extremely concentrated. The top ten flavors (excluding plain) comprise 63% of the options.
In the US, the top ten flavors are:
- Strawberry Banana
- Key Lime
The more interesting flavors I discovered available on the market are:
- Maple Ginger
- Plum Honey Lavender
- Cotton Candy
Is it Still Healthy or Even Really “Yogurt”?
To mask yogurt’s natural flavor requires food additives and reformulations often rendering the yogurt unrecognizable and sharply limiting any potential health benefits.
As early as 1982, The New York Times questioned whether US yogurt products, which often contain gelatin, dextrose, locust bean gum, and “other things that don’t belong in yogurt” can actually be called yogurt.
The reformulation and additives impact the overall sugar content. Pectin, one food additive found in almost 50% of yogurts for sale today impacts the overall sugar in yogurt. (Read more about how Pectin increases sugar by almost 1 tsp in yogurt here).
Across the top ten flavors alone:
- Only 3% of flavored yogurt has less than 1 tsp of sugar, while 86% of flavored yogurt has 3 tsp or more of sugar
- 200 yogurts have the same or more sugar than a Snickers bar (27 g), while 64 have the same or more sugar than a can of Coca-Cola (33 g)
- Vanilla has the highest concentration of high sugar products
The Cornucopia Institute filed a formal complaint with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asking the agency to investigate whether or not certain yogurt on the market, manufactured by such companies as Yoplait, Dannon, and store brands including Walmart’s Great Value, violate the legal standard of identity for products labeled as yogurt.
I eat Greek, so I’m fine, right?
Not necessarily. Many of the Greek yogurt brands have brought flavors to Greek yogurt with much the same impact as regular yogurts-more food additives and sugar.
Foodwise Bottom Line
There is a wide range of sugar across the yogurt category. In the top ten flavors the difference is as much as 1.5 cans of Coca-Cola or 49 g!
Unfortunately, most flavored yogurt (and some plain yogurt) in the US has a lot more sugar than the daily recommended value for adults.
While plain Greek yogurt is a good option (read here), for flavors, it pays to always read the nutrition label each time you buy or eat a yogurt. It could be the difference between eating something really healthy or junk food.