Perhaps you’ve seen a commercial or two on TV about how great it is to add yogurt to your diet. Unfortunately, they only have a few mere seconds to maybe mention a couple of health-related points while the rest of the commercial is dedicated to plugging the brand, leaving you to dig deeper for the health benefits of yogurt for yourself.
So, what's the truth? Is yogurt actually healthy?
The answer depends on a lot of things, including your own nutritional needs. Here’s what you need to know.
The Known Health Benefits of Yogurt
Yogurt is most often a dairy product, which is obviously off the menu for vegans. But there is a growing number of dairy-free yogurts for vegans and dairy-allergic as well. Both dairy and nondairy yogurts (especially those made with nuts) can offer a healthy dose of protein, along with other valuable nutrients, including many of the B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. The amount you’ll get will all depend on the type, brand, and serving size that you choose. And nondairy yogurts may not contain some of the vitamins (like D) so check your labels to be sure.
Calcium and vitamin D are vital for protection against osteoporosis, helping to keep bones strong and healthy as we age. And according to WebMD, yogurt may also help lower high blood pressure, which was observed in a Harvard study with reduction rates of 50 percent in participants who were consuming 2 to 3 servings of low-fat dairy a day.
One of the biggest health benefits yogurt gets praised for is its probiotic content, which is rich in live bacteria and yeasts that help regulate the digestive system. And because the immune system largely relies on the health of your gut, probiotics may also give your immunity a boost, although more research is needed in this area. Some studies even suggest that probiotic bacteria may aid against anxiety and even memory loss.
Common Differences in Varieties of Yogurt
All it takes is a simple glance over the supermarket yogurt aisle to get an idea of how many different varieties there really are. Most yogurts are not organic, so there’s a greater chance they're produced with antibiotics, artificial hormones, GMOs, and other potentially toxic chemicals. Choosing certified organic yogurt with the “USDA Organic” seal means that the living conditions of animals involved in the production process comply with USDA organic standards. (And in the case of nondairy yogurt, it means the nuts or beans used as the base were also grown without the use of herbicides or pesticides.)
Conventional yogurts also tend to be pasteurized, meaning that it’s heated to high temperatures in order to kill off potentially dangerous bacteria. Raw milk yogurt, on the other hand, is produced with unpasteurized and non-homogenized milk. While pasteurized yogurt might seem safer in theory, raw milk varieties undergo a warming process as well to kill potentially harmful bacteria, making it often very safe for human consumption and arguably more nutritious than pasteurized varieties for containing larger amounts of healthy bacteria, vitamins, and enzymes.
Greek yogurt is extremely popular nowadays. The difference between regular yogurt and Greek yogurt largely has to do with the straining process used. Greek yogurt involves straining out the extra whey, lactose, and sugar to make it thicker and creamier. It also packs a bigger punch in terms of protein content, but is typically much more expensive than conventional varieties.
When Yogurt Isn’t So Good for You
Despite the range of health benefits yogurt has to offer, not everyone fairs so well, even if they don't typically have any issues with other dairy products. The American Gastroenterological Association has pointed out that some people experience negative side effects like an upset stomach, gas, bloating, and diarrhea from consuming yogurt — particularly if probiotic-rich yogurt is consumed in large amounts.
Certain varieties of yogurt that are heavily marketed also tend to be full of extra unwanted ingredients in order to make it taste and look better, which may include jaw-dropping amounts of sugar, corn syrup, artificial sweeteners (like NutraSweet and aspartame), food coloring, emulsifiers, and fillers. The Cornucopia Institute, a food and farm policy research group, also discovered that many varieties of fruit-flavored yogurt contained no real fruit at all — instead containing as much sugar as candy bars or cans of soda.
Big yogurt brands including Dannon, Yoplait, Chobani, and others have been accused of misleading consumers into thinking they’re making healthier choices when in fact their products are loaded questionable ingredients, particularly in yogurt products marketed toward children loaded with added sugars, artificial coloring, and other additives.
Extra Tips to Keep in Mind When Buying Yogurt
To be sure that the yogurt you choose has probiotics, look for the Live & Active Cultures seal from The National Yogurt Association on each package or tub. You may also want to check out The Cornucopia Institute’s yogurt buying guide to compare popular brands and their details, including which ones have minimal processing.
If you’re trying to stick to a low-fat diet, make sure you also check the sugar content on low-fat or nonfat yogurts, which can contain high levels of sugar for added flavoring compared to whole-milk varieties. Look for yogurts that add a healthy dose of vitamin D, too. Some will have none while others will contain as much as 20 percent of your daily value.
How to Make Your Own Yogurt
Believe it or not, you can actually make your own yogurt right at home with just a few ingredients. And the best part is that it won’t contain any extra sugar (unless you add it in) or other shady ingredients associated with many commercially sold yogurts.
Homemade Yogurt Recipe
1 quart of whole milk
2 tablespoons of instant nonfat dry milk
2 tablespoons of plain whole milk with active cultures (at room temperature)
Yogurt can even be used in your beauty routine. The vitamins and minerals it contains can do wonders for your skin, helping you maintain a youthful glow.
Homemade Yogurt Face Mask
2 tablespoons of whole-milk (full-fat) plain yogurt
1 tablespoon of honey
Yogurt can be either healthy or unhealthy depending on the product. As long as you avoid falling for the marketing hype and do your research, you'll be able to tell which varieties are best for you.
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Image of yogurt bowl via Shutterstock