Plain Yogurt Not So Plain

April 6, 2015

Reading ingredient lists on even plain yogurt is worthwhile

In all my conversations about food labels, by far, one of the categories where people check nutrition and ingredient labels the most is yogurt. Turns out, it is worthwhile time spent.




I did an analysis of yogurts available at national grocery store chains, including Walmart, Safeway, Krogers, and Whole Foods and turned up some interesting observations.  To prevent controlling for all the different “fruit” flavors and different treatments across brands, I decided to only focus on plain yogurt.  I thought I  wouldn’t see that much variation….Boy was I wrong.

Plain yogurt is not just milk and cultures


plain yogurt



There were hundreds of options including by fat percentage and claim: 0%, fat free, non fat, low fat, 1%, cream on top, etc. There were different methods for making it: Greek, European Style, Icelandic, Russian, and Mediterranean. Not to mention the various brands and sub brands.  Interestingly, the private label store brands mostly fell into non fat, low fat and/or Greek style.


But what really unhooked me, was the ingredient lists’ variability across the category.  In the full fat milk category, the average ingredients was 7 with a low of 2 and high of 22!



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Some of these ingredients were from live and active cultures.

  • Under U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s standards of identity, in order for a refrigerated product to be called “yogurt,” it must be produced by culturing permitted dairy ingredients with a live and active bacterial culture.
  • This bacterial culture must contain both Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, which convert pasteurized milk to yogurt during fermentation.
  • Some yogurts also contain Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidus and other cultures.


live cultures


In some cases, the ingredient list specified the number of cultures in the yogurt, however, it often just listed active cultures.

Yet, 30% of the yogurts didn’t even list cultures at all.

Although all yogurts are required to initially contain these cultures, some yogurts are heated which destroys the cultures.


Full fat has lower sugar than non and low fat

Most interestingly, the type of milk used in the yogurt impacted the sugar content. I took averages across 5 categories: Low Fat (as claimed in the name); Non Fat (as claimed in the name); Full Fat; and Non Cow’s Milk (Sheep, Goat, Soy, and Almond Milk). Perhaps, non surprisingly the lower fat versions had higher sugar counts.  However, these sugar counts were on par with some of the “fruit” varieties available in the category:


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Read labels, consider full fat

So if you care about ingredients and sugar the next time you go to buy non fat or low fat plain yogurt,  do yourself a favor and take the time to examine the back of the container and check the sugar grams.  It could be worth your time to look at full fat versions or sheep or goat milk options.

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