The television commercial’s scene openings with a serine mountain village, red tile roof houses surrounded by green hills lined with stone walls and gravel roads.  The villagers here in this Caucus Mountain village are said to live on average 10 years longer than anywhere else in the world.  The secret to their longevity is the age old staple: a diet that includes plain or as is marketed today Greek style yogurt.

          No longer was yogurt an ethnic food, the 1970’s saw yogurt become an American household food item.

Yogurt- The Big White Lie

          Yogurt, as it should be consumed, plain or Greek style; is one of the healthiest foods on earth.  Yet, as marketed and sold today, yogurt in some of its forms, is far from being the healthy food it is advertised to be:  it is as I call it “The Big White Lie”.

          Today’s yogurt selection ranges from ‘Organic, milk only’ to artificially flavored, sugar added, as I call them, dessert yogurts- more healthy than a slice of cheese cake but not as healthy as Greek style.  There are many brands and private labels marketed in America, with total Yogurt sales of $6.5 Billion.  The top two yogurt manufactures with market share are:  Yoplait – 26.7% and Dannon- 25.6%.  To compete against a full fat and less healthy warm weather dessert such as ice cream, there are several brands of frozen yogurt.  In addition, yogurt can be used as a low fat, high protein substitute of sour cream in some recipes or on baked potatoes.

History and Origin of Yogurt

          Yogurt is bacterial fermented milk.  The exact origin is unknown but evidence leads to Turkey and the Caucus Mountain region several thousand years ago.  Not too coincidently, Chobani is a Turkish company and a US leading yogurt brand.

Health Benefits

           The health benefits[from] are many: it is a good source of vitamin D, B6, B12, calcium, protein, and the active cultures aide in digestion.  In addition, yogurt makes you feel fuller and in some studies reduces the risk of high blood pressure [conducted in Spain and Holland].

The White Lie Begins

           Traditionally yogurt is eaten as is, plain, with honey or over fresh fruit.  I ate yogurt my whole life but gave it up in the 1990’s when I realized what was added to it made yogurt less healthy.  Somewhere in recent history, marketing and selling yogurt, the healthy factor began to evolve in the 1970’s from pure milk and bacillus to fruit[really processed fruit, like a jam or jelly] on the bottom, to fruit pureed and blended into the yogurt.  As the butter fat was removed to make low fat yogurt, starch [one process away from sugar] was keeping the creamy texture.

           As yogurt moved away from its ‘pure’ form to an adulterated form, its health benefits were still touted as a ‘healthy snack alternative’ or ‘meal choice’.  Below is a dietary comparison, sourced from the website, of several popular brands of yogurt and a Snickers Bar as the control.

Product Brand Size Calories Protein Fat Sugar
Snickers Bar Mars 2 oz 280 4g 14g 35g
Greek Style, 4% Fat Fage 7 oz 190 18g 10g 8g*
Greek Style, ‘0’ Fat Chobani 6 oz 100 18g 0g 7g*
Fruit on bottom, Low Fat Dannon 6 oz 150 6g 1.5g 26g**
Flavored- Light Yoplait 6 oz 90 5g 0g 16g**
Organic- Lowfat Stoneyfield 6 oz 130 6g 1.5g 21g**

* Lactose, a natural sugar in milk products, only.  There is no added sugar.

     ** Lactose, plus added sugar

Note: The natural butter fat content of milk/yogurt is 4% and lactose per ounce of yogurt is just over 1 gram.

           Clearly, yogurt in general is healthier than a Snickers Bar and Greek style is the healthiest choice:  more protein and less added sugar while the other styles, to include ‘organic’ health benefits are questionable.

           As the saying goes; “Children are our future”; this is true in the business world as well.  Companies like McDonald’s and GAP have targeted their future customers, children, through the use of incentives- McDonald’s ‘Happy Meal’ or own product lines, such as GAP, with its GAP Kids product lines.  Companies’ are planting the ‘use our products’ seed early to build product awareness and brand loyalty.

          Yogurt companies are no different and have targeted children with their own ‘kids’ yogurt brands with bright colors and cartoonish graphics packaging, selling fun as a healthy snack option.  But is yogurt, which is sold as a healthy snack, targeted at the children’s market really that healthy?  If I am asking the question, maybe ‘not really’ is the answer.

         Below is a dietary comparison, sourced from the website, of several popular brands of children’s yogurt and a Snickers Bar as the control.

Product Brand Size Calories Protein Fat Sugar
Snickers Bar Mars 2 oz 280 4g 14g 35g
Childrens’ yogurt Yoplait 3 oz 70 3g 1g 9g**
Very Berry Chobani 3.6 oz 100 8g 2g 13g**
Dano-O-Nino Dannon 3oz 60 3g 2g 7g**
Yo Kids Organic Stoneyfield 4oz 80 4g 1g 13g**
25% less sugar Yoplait 3oz 70 3g 1g 9g**

* Lactose, a natural sugar in milk products only.  There is no added sugar.

     ** Lactose, plus added sugar

The calories appear acceptable, under 100 calories for the above listed yogurt products, is due to its portion smaller size.  The added sugar is proportionate to the larger adult size yogurts- which I consider too much.

          Should children be fed a product that contains so much added sugar and other artificial ingredients that is marketed as a healthy snack choice?

Back to the Future:  Greek Style Yogurt Returns

           My personal plain yogurt epiphany began during my second deployment to Iraq, 2005-2006, while serving as a senior mentor, when I ate breakfast with my Iraqi Army partners.  The Iraqis ate yogurt[plain or Greek style] traditionally- as is. The taste was acceptable and the health benefits well know- I became hooked.

           Greek style yogurt, the original style and the healthiest of all, has returned to the market place and taken the market by storm.  Sales of Greek style yogurt have pushed from 1% of the yogurt market in 2007 to its current position with 36% of the market.  Every major brand and most private labels have a Greek style yogurt.

            Maybe as the population ages [my mom, 93 years old, has been eating Greek style for the past 15 years] and understands the health benefits of eating Greek style yogurt, they will reduce their consumption of less healthy foods in general and less healthy yogurts in particular.

Responsibility and Regulations

            I will admit up front, I prefer industries to police themselves, but I am not so naïve to believe that industries will always do the right thing.  Industry in general sometimes takes the easy cost effective way versus the costlier ‘right thing’ way- especially if the consumer does not know any better or is not asking the right questions.  Industry self-policing will not be 100% effective and that some government regulation or oversight is needed.

             The critical ingredients that customers need to know in order to make a healthy yogurt choice are added sugar, starch and artificial ingredients. Anything beyond milk and culture; is not natural in yogurt.  To some extent I question companies using the term ‘yogurt’ to describe soy, coconut and other non-milk products marketed as an alternative to milk yogurt.

           Currently, the ingredients, size and calories are listed on the yogurts’ packaging. This might not be enough to educate consumers.  Consumers might not know how much sugar is added versus naturally occurring sugar [lactose].  Consumers might not realize the creamy tasty texture of some low fat yogurt is due to added starch– not exactly healthy.

           The question is how does the consumer becomes aware of yogurt’s ‘additives’?