Yogurt is a dairy product made by fermenting milk with a bacterial yogurt culture. It provides protein and calcium, and it may enhance healthy probiotic gut bacteria.
Health benefits range from protecting against osteoporosis to relieving irritable bowel disease and aiding digestion, but these depend on the type of yogurt consumed.
Added sugar and processing can make some yogurt products unhealthy.
Yogurt starts as fresh milk or cream. It is often first pasteurized, then fermented with various live bacteria cultures, and incubated at a specific temperature to encourage bacteria growth.
The culture ferments the lactose, the natural sugar found in milk. This produces lactic acid, which gives yogurt its distinctive flavor.
Fast facts about yogurt
- Yogurt is made by fermenting milk with a yogurt culture.
- Health benefits can include promoting bone health and aiding digestion.
- Some yogurts contain active, living bacteria known as probiotics, which can help keep the intestines healthy.
- Yogurt products that go through heat treatment have no active bacteria, reducing the health benefits. Yogurt-covered raisins are an example.
- Yogurts contain calcium, vitamins B6 and B12, riboflavin, potassium, and magnesium. The amounts depend on the type.
There are many types of yogurt that provide varying levels of nutritional benefit.
When is yogurt good for you?
Whether yogurt is a healthful choice depends on the person consuming it and the type of yogurt.
Yogurts can be high in protein, calcium, vitamins, and live culture, or probiotics, which can enhance the gut microbiota.
These can offer protection for bones and teeth and help prevent digestive problems.
Low-fat yogurt can be a useful source of protein on a weight-loss diet.
Probiotics may boost the immune system.
Some argue that they could also impact brain functioning, too, although more research is necessary to confirm some of these claims.
Other scientists have suggested that yogurt containing probiotic bacteria successfully protects children and pregnant women against the effects of heavy metal exposure.
It is also a nutritious option when people find it difficult to chew their food.
Non-dairy yogurts offer an alternative for people who do not consume dairy or animal products or have allergies or intolerances.
Yogurt contains less lactose than milk because the lactose is used up in the fermentation process.
When is yogurt bad for you?
Not all yogurts are healthful. Those without added sugar or unnecessary additives can be a healthful addition to the diet, but some products have high quantities of added sugar and other ingredients that may not be beneficial.
Natural yogurt can be a low-calorie, high-nutrient food packed with protein.
However, many manufacturers add sugar, artificial sweeteners, and other ingredients that are not healthful.
All yogurts contain some natural sugars, but consumers are advised to look for a product with less than 15 grams of sugar per serving. The lower the sugar, the better, as long as it does not contain any artificial sweeteners.
Some studies have refuted the view that yogurt consumption is linked to good health, causing authorities to question whether health claims can be made for commercial purposes. However, people who eat yogurt are more likely to have an otherwise healthy diet.
Packaged products like cereals and bars claiming to be “made with real yogurt,” yogurt-covered raisins and other products with yogurt coating contain only a small amount of yogurt powder.
Yogurt powder is heat-treated, and heat kills the beneficial bacteria. Yogurt coatings are made of sugar, oil, whey, and yogurt powder.
There are different types of yogurt.
Low fat or non-fat
Low-fat, or reduced-fat yogurt, is made with 2-percent milk. Non-fat yogurt is made with zero percent or skim milk.
Kefir is a liquid yogurt for drinking. It contains probiotics and is easy to make at home by adding kefir grains to milk and leaving it to stand for 12 to 24 hours.
Greek yogurt is thick and creamy. It can withstand heat better than regular yogurt and is often used in Mediterranean-style cooking and dips.
It is made by further straining regular yogurt to remove the liquid whey.
The result is a higher protein content, due to its thicker concentration, but the extra straining leads to a lower calcium content.
Greek yogurt is available in full fat, reduced or low fat and non-fat or zero percent.
Similar to Greek yogurt, skyr, pronounced “skeer,” is an Icelandic-style yogurt that is dense, creamy and high in protein. Compared to regular yogurt, skyr requires 4 times the amount of milk to make and contains 2 to 3 times more protein.
Frozen yogurts are often seen as a healthful alternative to ice cream.
However, many frozen yogurts contain the same amount of sugar or more as regular ice cream.
Also, according to the National Yogurt Association, not all so-called frozen yogurts contain live and active cultures. Some use heat-treated yogurts, which kills the live and active cultures.
Non-dairy yogurt alternatives include soy yogurt and coconut milk yogurt.
Yogurt can offer a range of important nutrients.
Some yogurts have probiotics added to them.
Probiotics are a type of healthy bacteria that benefit the gut. They help regulate the digestive system and decrease gas, diarrhea, constipation, and bloating.
Some research has suggested that probiotics can boost the immune system, help with weight management, and reduce the risk of cancer.
Consuming yogurt and other probiotic foods may enhance absorption of vitamins and minerals.
The two most common bacteria used to ferment milk into yogurt are Lactobacillus bulgaricus (L. bulgaricus) and Streptococcus thermophiles (S. thermophiles), but many yogurts contain additional bacterial strains.
To help consumers identify yogurts with live and active cultures, the National Yogurt Association has implemented the Life & Active Cultures (LAC) seal, found on the product container.
In most cases, the fresher the product, the more live bacteria it will contain.
A recent study from the University of Toronto points out that different probiotics will have different effects, and some yogurts containing probiotics may be healthier than others.
Dairy products are one of the best dietary sources of calcium in terms of bioavailability.
Calcium is essential for the development and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth. It is also important for blood clotting, wound healing, and maintaining normal blood pressure.
Calcium-rich foods are best when paired with a source of vitamin D, as vitamin D helps the small intestine to absorb calcium.
Most yogurts also contain varying amounts of vitamins B6 and B12, riboflavin, potassium, and magnesium.
Yogurt has a low lactose content, so a person with a lactose intolerance will likely find it more tolerable than milk. It also contains bacteria that aid digestion.
As a result, people who experience discomfort, bloating or gas after consuming liquid milk or ice cream can often tolerate yogurt without symptoms.
The individual should try a small amount of yogurt, say, a quarter of a cup, to see how their body reacts. This only applies to lactose intolerance, not to those with a milk allergy.
People with a lactose intolerance often lack calcium, so yogurt can be an important component of their diet.
A person with a milk allergy will not benefit from consuming yogurt.
Here are some tips for incorporating more yogurt into a healthful, nutritious diet.
- Start with plain, unsweetened yogurt and sweeten it yourself with fruit, unsweetened applesauce or a small amount of pure maple syrup or honey.
- Avoid pre-made fruit and yogurt desserts, as these often contain unnecessary added sugars.
- When baking, use yogurt instead of butter or oil.
- Use plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream to top baked potatoes or tacos.
- A healthful yogurt should have more grams of protein per serving than sugar.
Recipes containing yogurt
Here are some healthful recipes that contain yogurt:
100-calorie cranberry dark chocolate muffins
Cranberry-maple breakfast bars
Green chile and spinach quesadillas.
The range of yogurt options can be confusing. Most of the products available have not been studied, and scientists do not yet know which probiotics do what in the human body. The best option is to choose yogurt that is low in sugar and additives.
If choosing yogurt for health reasons, experts suggest choosing those that have been scientifically researched.