Buying yoghurt is one of the most overwhelming experiences you can have in the supermarket aisles, as a recent study published in BMJ Open confirms. A University of Leeds research team analysed over 900 yoghurts on sale in supermarkets in the UK to primarily assess their sugar content, which in itself indicates the dairy led dilemma the average shopper faces when doing a trolley dash. Given that we could be presented with almost a thousand variations on what is essentially milk plus bacteria (and as we’ll explore, often copious amounts of sugar) and that it took a department of academics to really dial down on the nutritional content of the hundreds of pots on offer, it’s no surprise that we’re often boggled by the bright and shiny yoghurt circus and aren’t altogether au fait with what we’re putting in our baskets, and later, bodies.
When they got to the nub of what was in various tubs, researchers discovered that certain types of yoghurt in particular presented a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ situation on the sugar front especially, with the ostensibly healthy organic options being the worst offenders. Organic yoghurts were found to be the second most sugar-laden variety available, second to dessert style yoghurts (at least most of these are fundamentally branded as chilled, liquidised chocolate bars). While the packaging may depict an idyllic pastoral scene and the labelling speak of the virtues of its organic ingredients, the team found that organic yoghurts typically contained 13.1g of sugar per 100g. That’s a lot of the sweet stuff in one pot considering that government recommendations advise that adults should consume no more than 30g of sugar a day (for children it’s between 19g-24g depending on age).
Public Health England (PHE) is currently cracking down on sugar content in yoghurts in the same vein as fizzy drinks, which is apt given this study’s findings, but it’s worth stressing that yoghurt itself isn’t an inherently unhealthy food, unlike the nutritionally decrepit fizzy stuff. In fact, yoghurt is one of the most nourishing snack and breakfast choices you could make - it’s naturally rich in calcium which is vital for healthy bones, teeth and gums and as nutritionist Cassandra Barns highlights, “it’s a great source of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and is a good source of beneficial bacteria for your gut too.”
PHE aims for the sugar content of yoghurts to be reduced by 20 per cent come 2020, however, currently only 9 per cent of yoghurts analysed by the University of Leeds come in at low sugar - defined as containing 5g of sugar or less per 100g. Clearly there’s some way to go in the crowded yoghurt market but given that manufacturers have reduced sugar levels by six per cent in the first year of PHE issuing new guidelines, we might get there. For now, we took to the aisles with registered nutritionist Daniel O’Shaughnessy to weigh up the health benefits of different types of yoghurt and hopefully ease your chiller cabinet paralysis.
Daniel’s star buy: plain natural yoghurt
The main takeaway in the yoghurt department is to ignore the flashy advertising and keep it as simple as possible. Plain natural yoghurt was one of only two yoghurt varieties categorised as low sugar in the University of Leeds’ paper and Daniel loves it as it’s a brilliant way to get natural live bacteria into your system. Yoghurt is a probiotic rich food that typically contains the microbes lactobacillus acidophilus, lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus which are necessary for the fermentation process. Some ‘bio live’ varieties bring additional probiotics to the table, but either variety can be considered beneficial for your gut and immune health, while also providing protein, vitamins and calcium as mentioned above.
Full-fat plain yoghurt is generally more tasty than low-fat versions, which likely won’t come as a shocker, and while the NHS advocates generally choosing low-fat varieties, likely owing to the fact that British adults overwhelmingly consume a surplus of saturated fats already, sugar and sweetener is a common additive to low-fat yogurt to make up for the lack of flavour. Daniel advises checking your packets and going as “pure” as possible. Incidentally, a dollop of full-fat plain yoghurt will give you more scope for fat-soluble vitamin absorption and is more satiating, so your call.
Daniel’s runner-up: Greek yoghurt
Daniel uses thicker textured Greek yoghurt for spreading and in baking in particular, and in the University of Leeds’ study Greek yoghurt was the second shining low sugar option. Like Champagne, Parma ham and Prosecco, Greek yoghurt has protected status and can only be so-called if it’s legit made in Greece - otherwise you’ll see ‘Greek-style’ on the label. Greek yoghurt, like Icelandic skyr, is strained and as a result has a more dense, creamy texture than regular plain yoghurt, even in its 0% fat version, and the straining process also results in a higher protein content. Full-fat Greek yoghurt tends to have more fat than the full-fat plain yoghurt equivalent. You may also come across labneh, which is a very thick high-fat strained yoghurt made with whole milk and a little salt - it makes a delicious dip as part of a mezze and it’s quite rich so you’re unlikely to overdo it.
Onto the great pretender. While not every organic yoghurt is packed with sugar, and as Daniel underlines the organic nature of the dairy can mean that the end product is richer in nutrients, the sour taste of many varieties usually accounts for the truck load of sugar added at the end of the process. As always, check the label for sugars per 100g.
Goat and sheep’s milk yoghurt
Just as beneficial as plain yoghurt and they tend to be better tolerated by those that can’t eat cow’s milk, although consult your doctor or a dietitian before diving in if that’s you. As long as sugar levels are around the 5g per 100g mark, it’s the good stuff. Depending on where you’re shopping/ living there are other animal milk yoghurts to choose from too – a Neopolitan friend of mine occasionally brings home buffalo milk yoghurt as it’s a byproduct of the buffalo mozzarella production.
Fruit yoghurt and flavoured yoghurt
You probably know what’s coming, but fruit yoghurts often don’t contain a whole lot of actual fruit, and as Daniel confirms, flavoured yoghurts are pretty much guaranteed to be high in sugar (on average 12g per 100g according to the University of Leeds’ findings). Daniel urges you not to be deceived by the “lite!” proclamations either:
“Light and low calorie versions of these yoghurts very often contain even more sugar than the regular versions.”
Adding actual fruit to plain yoghurt is a better bet health wise, and sweetening to taste with a little honey is preferable to the high levels of sugar and artificial sweeteners usually found in flavoured and fruit yoghurts.
Another potential healthy yoghurt imposter (who knew yoghurt was such a contentious grocery?!), probiotic yoghurts carry an association of good health owing to the reported health benefits of probiotic bacteria, but an Israeli study published last month suggested that, for many people, probiotic yoghurt drinks were somewhat of a waste of time, with much of the friendly bacteria contained within being excreted rather than colonising in the gut. Just as with pills and other forms of probiotic supplement, bacterial backup doesn’t work for everyone according to Daniel:
“Probiotics should not be seen as a one-size fit all supplement. There are many different strains that can be clinically used, not all of them effective, and it’s also important to consider that you ideally require prebiotics in your diet to allow friendly probiotic bacteria to grow and multiply - prebiotic food sources include leeks, onions, garlic, artichoke and oats.”
The other issue with off the shelf probiotic yoghurts is getting a little ‘same old, same old’ – sugar. Daniel emphasises that, even if they do contain good strains of healthy bacteria, a high sugar content can essentially cancel out the health pros of probiotic yoghurt drinks. It’s down to the routine addition of sugar and sweeteners that Clever Guts Diet author Dr Michael Mosley steers clear of probiotic yoghurt drinks and opts for natural sources of probiotic bacteria such as plain live yoghurt and kefir .
The widespread availability of dairy-free yoghurts is great news for those with dairy allergies or intolerances or those following a vegan diet and the average dairy-free option is middling in the sugar stakes according to the University of Leeds’ analysis – roughy 9.2g per 100g. There seems to be a new ‘mylk’ based yoghurt cultivating its way into the market each week, but Daniel’s favourite is coconut yoghurt, as it tends to be fairly low in sugar and contains a little fibre, although it is high in saturated fat. Almond based yoghurt is lower in fat but Daniel reckons that it’s quite an acquired taste, and the bitter flavour means that sugar or sweeteners are more likely to be added to make it palatable, so check your labels. Soya yoghurt delivers the biggest protein hit of the dairy-free yoghurt brigade, but again sugar is sometimes added to disguise the distinctive chalky taste.
Dairy-free yoghurt doesn’t come complete with the nutrient profile of animal based varieties so check that your pot of choice is fortified with calcium and ideally a lineup of vitamins too.