Nutrition

Cultural Immersion: Choosing the Right Yogurt

People have been turning milk and other substances into an endless variety of yogurts for centuries
BY Stephen Sowulewski TIMEJune 19, 2022 PRINT

The yogurt section seems to be taking on a life of its own, whether those cultures are “live” or not. Shoppers can expect to find numerous brands with a plethora of varieties. If traditional yogurt was an acquired taste before or if it seems too passé now, you may be pleasantly surprised by this newer world of fermented options.

Health Benefits of Yogurt: Probiotics

Your gastrointestinal tract (GI) tract is teeming with trillions of helpful bacteria that can impact your digestive health, which is why many health experts are suggesting we eat live, active bacteria—probiotics. A new study led by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that eating more yogurt was associated with a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes. Researchers posit that this may be linked to probiotics in yogurt leading to improvement in insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation. Yogurts labeled with the “Live & Active Cultures” seal are guaranteed to contain beneficial bacteria like those from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria families, which prevent harmful bacterial growth and help to counter the acidity (pH) of the gut by doing battle with bacterial villains such as diarrhea-producing Clostridioides difficile or (C. diff.) according to Nature Reviews Microbiology.

Athletic Performance and Recovery

Beneficial bacteria may also improve athletic performance, according to a 2019 position statement from the International Society for Sports Nutrition on probiotics. “A person who exercises has a varying gut that regulates bacterial composition as compared to sedentary people,” it states.

Differences were linked primarily to the amount of exercise and amount of protein eaten. Researchers contend that in athletic populations, “certain probiotic strains can increase absorption of key nutrients such as amino acids from protein, which can affect the properties in food.” Finally, the position statement reports that taking certain anti-inflammatory probiotic strains has been linked to improved recovery after exercise.

Yogurt’s Evolution: What Kind of Yogurt to Buy

Overall, it’s best to choose low-fat or fat-free yogurt as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Don’t be duped; fruit on the bottom and flavored yogurts may sound appealing, but added sugar is lurking in these varieties of yogurt. When you read the Nutrition Facts label on plain yogurt, you’ll see that it lists “sugar,” but this is because it contains lactose, the natural sugar found in milk.

Plant-Based Options

If you opt for a nondairy alternative, try one of the plant-based yogurt options that are available. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that consumers look for brands that are replete with calcium and vitamin D. Soy-based yogurt is equivalent to standard dairy-based yogurt in terms of protein content as compared to a brand that uses almond milk as its base, which typically contains just one gram of protein.

Going Greek

The Greeks are certainly no stranger to firsts, after all, they hosted the very first Olympic Games in Athens over 125 years ago. In the mid-2000s, shoppers began to see Greek-style yogurt lining the shelves as the trend for thicker yogurt was beginning to take hold.

Greek yogurt is strained, which means liquid (whey) has been taken out to yield a smoother taste as compared to traditional yogurt. It also has double the protein of traditional yogurt.

In both traditional and Greek yogurts, bacteria cultures help break down lactose, making it ideal for those who are lactose intolerant. As an added plus, Greek yogurt has less lactose than traditional yogurt.

Icelandic Skyr

A few summers ago I traveled to “the land of fire and ice” and tried Icelandic yogurt for the first time at the hotel restaurant—I was hooked! Icelandic yogurt (skyr) is even more strained than Greek, leading to an ultra-thick and much creamier taste.

Icelandic-style skyr contains little sugar and offers a more tart taste. It typically comes from grass-fed cow’s milk. Skyr is also high in probiotics.

Middle Eastern

Labneh is a popular dairy food of the Middle East—a sort of hybrid between yogurt and cheese. Although it doesn’t have the spotlight of Greek yogurt or Icelandic yogurt, it’s even more strained, which leads to its unique consistency. Due to its savory taste, it pairs well with bread and crackers as a dip or a spread.

Australian

Unlike Greek and Icelandic yogurt, Australian yogurt is unstrained. However, it’s still a bit richer and creamier than traditional yogurt. Some brands use only whole milk to achieve this, while others use nonfat milk.

French

Although yogurt packaging has changed over time, it was originally packaged in glass containers, which can still be seen today. The French refer to this as “pot set.” This yogurt is cultured and placed into individual glass jars. It’s unstrained but still has a creamy texture because it typically comes from whole milk.

East European (Kefir & Quark)

Kefir is a fermented milk product that’s akin to a drinkable yogurt and has a creamy texture. One of the most notable things is that kefir can have three times the amount of probiotics as compared to other yogurts.

Seen in Germanic countries, quark falls between the texture of traditional yogurt and cottage cheese, without any added sugars. It’s often described as an acid-set cheese and has a less sour taste as compared to Greek yogurt, but is similar in consistency.

Not a Fan of Yogurt? Try Other Fermented Foods

If you’re not fond of yogurt, there are certainly other fermented food options that include probiotics, such as sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), the Korean staple known as kimchi (pickled and fermented cabbage), kombucha (fermented black tea with sugar, fruit, or honey), apple cider vinegar (fermented apples), or pickles (cucumbers fermented in lactic acid).

Try this simple test: Take the lid off of your next jar of pickles, and you should see bubbles. This test signifies that the cultures are alive and well.

Check Food Labels

In addition to looking for words like “live cultures,” double check those food labels for other key words such as “unpasteurized,” “raw” or “naturally fermented,” as these words signify optimal probiotic properties.

A diet rich in probiotics not only keeps the gut healthy, but also helps fight age-related chronic inflammation as noted in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.

One of the great things about fermented foods is the bioavailability of some nutrients. Many fermented foods confer more bioavailability of certain nutrients, which allows our body to use more of the nutrients. For example, vitamin C is more bioavailable in sauerkraut than in cabbage.

Yogurt in All Its Guises

As suggested by the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, yogurt is one of the most versatile foods around.

You can flavor it to use as a sweet dip for fruit, or savory topping for vegetables. You can mix it with fruit, nuts, and grains for a delicious meal, or add it to any number of dishes. You can freeze it for treats, use it as a topping on baked potatoes, or add it to smoothies for extra protein. It’s great in dressings, sauces, baking, soups, and pastas, and can even be used as a face cleanser or hair conditioner.

Dr. Stephen Sowulewski is a professor in the School of Health Professions at Reynolds Community College, an adjunct professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Honors College and the University of Richmond’s School of Continuing Studies. He also serves on the board of directors at the Men’s Health Network in Washington, D.C.
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