Yogurt is often marketed as a healthy food.
However, the sugar and flavorings added to many yogurts can make them more like junk food.
For this reason, navigating the yogurt aisle of your grocery store can be confusing.
Follow this guide to find out what to look for and what to avoid when shopping for healthy yogurt.
Always Read the Label
Reading the label should always be your first step when deciding what food to buy.
This is because reading the label is essential to knowing what is really in your food.
On the outside, it may seem like all yogurts are the same. However, if you know what to look for, the label on each yogurt can tell a different story.
Although all yogurts start out as plain yogurt, they often contain a variety of added ingredients, such as sugar, artificial flavors, dyes, stabilizers and preservatives.
When possible, choose a yogurt without large amounts of added ingredients. Instead, try to choose a yogurt with few ingredients.
They should include milk, the bacterial cultures used to turn milk into yogurt and not much else.
Ingredients are listed by weight, so avoid yogurts that have sugar listed near the top.
Better yet, simply avoid all yogurts that have any type of added sugar on the ingredients list.
Sugar can be listed under a number of different names, including sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice, cane sugar and agave nectar.
The nutrition facts on the label can give you some of the most specific information.
The serving size and calories per serving are listed at the top. The nutrition facts can also tell you how many carbs, fat, protein and sugar are in each serving.
Note that there may be more than one serving per container, meaning there are more calories too.
Right now, the nutrition label does not distinguish added sugar from naturally occurring sugar, which can make it difficult to tell how much sugar has been added.
However, labeling guidelines have recently changed so that the grams of added sugar per serving will also be listed on labels in the future.
The nutrition information will also tell you how much calcium and vitamin D each yogurt serving contains.
Ideally, your yogurt will contain vitamin D and a significant part of your daily calcium needs. This will be listed as percentage of daily value (% DV) on the label.
For more information about how to read food labels, check out this article.
Bottom Line: Reading the label is the first thing you should do when choosing a yogurt. The nutrition facts and ingredients list can tell you a lot about what’s in your yogurt.
Avoid Added Sugar
The main culprit that turns yogurt from a healthy food into an unhealthy one is added sugar.
The average American’s intake of added sugar has increased from 20 lbs (9 kg) of sugar per year in 1850 to over 160 lbs (73 kg) per year by the early 2000s (1).
It’s estimated that sugar-sweetened beverages are responsible for 40% of that increase. However, processed foods with added sugar, including sweetened yogurts, help contribute to it (1).
Eating too much sugar can be very damaging to health. Research has linked it to the development of obesity, heart disease, metabolic dysfunction, liver disease and type 2 diabetes, among other problems (1, 2, 3).
Although yogurt already contains some natural sugar in the form of lactose (milk sugar), food companies often add large amounts of simple sugars to make yogurt taste sweeter.
Plain yogurt typically contains around 10–15 grams of carbs per cup (245 grams), but flavored or sweetened yogurts can easily contain more than 30 grams per serving (4).
To choose a healthy yogurt, pick the brands with the least sugar per serving. This means as little as possible over the 10–15 grams per cup (245 grams) that is already present from lactose.
Typically, the healthiest choice is plain, unflavored yogurt. But if you don’t like plain yogurt, there are a few things you can do instead.
One option is to sweeten it yourself with your favorite fresh fruit.
You can also make your own chia seed yogurt to make plain yogurt less tart. And, as a bonus, you’ll get extra protein, fiber and healthy fats with the chia seeds.
It is as easy as mixing 2 cups (473 ml) of yogurt with 1.5–2 tablespoons (22–30 ml) of chia seeds and letting it sit overnight in the fridge.
Bottom Line: Added sugar can turn a health food into a junk food. Choose plain yogurt when possible and always read the label to find out if sugar has been added.
Low-Fat vs Full-Fat
Yogurt can be made from whole, low-fat or fat-free milk.
Health experts often recommend low-fat dairy products because most people already eat more calories than they need.
As a result, most yogurts are made from low-fat or fat-free milk.
However, reduced-fat yogurts typically contain the most sugar, which is added to compensate for the loss of flavor from fat. So if you choose low-fat yogurt, be sure to look for one without added sugar.
Full-fat yogurt is also available. Although it does contain more calories than plain low-fat yogurt, that does not necessarily make it a less healthy choice.
In fact, the fats found in full-fat dairy products may be beneficial.
Dairy products contain some naturally occurring trans fats that are unlike the harmful trans fats found in some processed foods.
These fats, namely conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), are not considered harmful and may even have some health benefits.
Both plain unsweetened low-fat and full-fat yogurts can be healthy. Decide which type to eat based on your dietary habits, food preferences and calorie goals.
Bottom Line: Yogurt can be made from reduced-fat or full-fat milk. Reduced-fat yogurt is only lower in calories if it has no added sugar. Both can be healthy choices.
Look for Live Cultures
Healthy probiotic bacteria are used to make yogurt. They turn the milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid, which causes the yogurt to taste sour.
These probiotic bacteria, often referred to as “live cultures” in yogurt, can offer a large number of health benefits.
Although research on probiotics is still in its infancy, studies suggest that they can:
- Improve symptoms of lactose intolerance (8).
- Stimulate the immune system (9).
- Significantly reduce symptoms of depression (10).
- Reduce the risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in children and adults (11, 12).
- Improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (13, 14).
All yogurts contain these live cultures initially, since they are the ingredient that turns milk into yogurt.
However, the probiotic content of a yogurt can vary greatly depending on a number of factors, including packaging methods and storage conditions.
To get the most benefits from your yogurt, choose one with the most probiotics. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to tell how much each yogurt contains.
The National Yogurt Association offers a “Live and Active Cultures” seal for yogurts that contain 100 million cultures (bacteria) per gram at the time of testing. The seal looks like this:
Image Source: Fage.
However, getting the seal is expensive. Many brands opt to go without it, even if they do meet the 100 million cultures per gram qualification.
In fact, one report about independently tested yogurts found that many brands without the seal contained well over 100 million cultures per gram (18).
The most important thing is to avoid yogurts that have been heat-treated, or pasteurized after the probiotics are added. Pasteurization kills the bacteria, which must be alive to benefit you.
This is easy to find out because the labels of these yogurts should say “heat-treated after culturing” (19).
Bottom Line: Probiotics are the friendly bacteria that turn milk into yogurt. Look for yogurt with the “Live and Active Cultures” seal and avoid yogurts that have been pasteurized after production.
Which Type Is Better?
There are many different types of yogurt available, and here’s how the different varieties compare.
Greek, Non-Dairy or Regular Yogurt?
Greek yogurt is the biggest trend in yogurt right now. It differs from traditional yogurt because it is strained more times, removing some of the whey and lactose.
This gives Greek yogurt about twice as much protein as traditional yogurt and around half the carbs. It’s a great option as a filling snack and for those who are lactose intolerant (20).
However, this means Greek yogurt is also typically higher in calories and fat and contains less calcium than traditional yogurt.
Many brands are also filled with added sugar.
Dairy-free yogurts, such as soy or coconut yogurt, have also become popular. Because they are plant-based, they are much lower in fat than traditional yogurt and do not contain lactose.
These are ideal choices for vegans and people with lactose intolerance. However, they do not naturally contain much calcium, so be sure to check the label for a brand with added calcium and vitamin D.
Greek yogurt, non-dairy and regular yogurt can all be healthy options, but none is necessarily healthier than the others.
Organic or Not?
To carry the USDA organic seal, milk must be from cows fed with organic, non-GMO feed and not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.
However, whether organic foods are better or not is highly debated, and the use of GMOs and growth hormones in dairy farming remains extremely controversial.
The nutritional content of organic versus conventional foods is controversial as well, although there do appear to be differences when it comes to organic dairy.
However, it also appears that organic milk is lower in the minerals selenium and iodine (22).
The fact is, it’s hard to say if organic really is better than conventional when it comes to nutrition and health benefits.
Bottom Line: Greek yogurt has more protein and fewer carbs, while dairy-free yogurt tends to have less fat and no lactose. Organic yogurt may be richer in certain nutrients, but lower in others.
A Few Yogurts to Try
While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are a few types of yogurt that are healthy choices.
Stonyfield Organic is a good brand to choose if you like to buy organic. All of their yogurts are organic and they have many different products to choose from.
They offer grass-fed, whole-milk yogurt, Greek yogurt and a Smooth & Creamy line.
If you prefer flavored yogurt, their fruit-flavored Greek yogurts are all great choices.
However, most of their other fruit-flavored yogurts do contain added sugar.
Dannon All Natural
Dannon’s All Natural line of yogurts is a good example of healthy yogurt.
It has only two ingredients: low-fat or fat-free milk and pectin, which is a natural thickener. It also carries the “Live and Active Cultures” seal.
Unfortunately, this yogurt does not have vitamin D added.
However, with no added sugar, 8 grams of protein per serving and 30% of your daily calcium needs, it is still a good choice.
The rest of Dannon’s yogurts, though popular, contain lots of added sugar and therefore aren’t the healthiest yogurt choices.
Fage Total Plain
Fage is a great choice for those who enjoy Greek yogurt.
The Fage Total Plain line of yogurt contains only milk and a variety of live cultures. It is also available in full-fat, 2% and 0% varieties.
However, since it is a Greek yogurt, the calcium content is lower than a regular yogurt would be, at about 20% of your daily needs. It also doesn’t contain added vitamin D.
Still, it is a healthy choice.
But, like the other brands, stick to the plain varieties. The brand’s flavored or fruit-added yogurts contain plenty of added sugar.
Bottom Line: There are many brands of healthy yogurt for you to try. Choose varieties with low or no added sugar and a short list of ingredients.
When Choosing a Healthy Yogurt, Less Is More
When it comes to yogurt, keeping it healthy means keeping it simple.
Try to pick a yogurt that has few ingredients and as little added sugar as possible. Plain and unsweetened yogurt is best.
Apart from that, most choices are up to personal preference.
As long as you follow these tips, you can feel confident that the yogurt you pick is a healthy and nutritious choice.