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Dishing on Yogurt: Avoiding Hidden Sugars and Exonerating Fat

By Catherine Newman

Some basic principles about yogurt – its benefits, pitfalls, types, and traps – and which ones might be best to buy and eat

When I was a child, way back in the Pleistocene era of the 1970’s, there was one brand of yogurt, Dannon, and it came in a waxed-cardboard container, and you knew it was healthy because there were million-year-old Slavic people in the commercial for it, the point being that if you ate yogurt you would live forever. If you liked yogurt, you bought Dannon; if you didn’t like yogurt, you didn’t buy it.

Those were the days! Because now the yogurt aisle is fourteen miles long and more baffling than a word problem about colliding trains. Plus, yogurt is extra-tricky, since it still shines with that gloss of alleged good health – even if it’s flavored with cotton candy and contains as much sugar as your average serving of Laffy Taffy. In other words, you’ve got to watch out for the wolf in yogurt’s clothing. And if you are managing diabetes – or otherwise limiting your intake of sugar and carbs – then the stakes are even higher, and the yogurt aisle can feel like even more of a health landmine.

But yogurt, when it’s good yogurt, is good for you. And eating yogurt is said to lower your risk of obesity, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes; a 2014 Harvard School of Public Health analysis actually found that eating yogurt every day was associated with a reduction in risk of type 2 diabetes by a significant 18%.

That said, eating yogurt is associated with lower blood glucose and lower levels of insulin resistance, which is good news for folks with diabetes – and, honestly, for everybody else too.

We set out to clarify some basic principles about yogurt – its benefits, pitfalls, types, and traps – and to figure out which ones might be best to buy and eat. To that end, we bought and tasted a lot of yogurt. (You’re welcome.)

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What is yogurt?

Yogurt is made from milk that’s been fermented. Thanks to the milk, yogurt contains lots of protein and calcium, which are both essential to good health. Thanks to the fermentedness, yogurt also contains probiotics, which are bacteria that might play a role in keeping your gut healthy, essentially by crowding out other, less healthy, microorganisms. Some yogurts may claim extra-special probiotic status, but pretty much any yogurt you buy from a refrigerated dairy case is going to contain “live and active cultures,” i.e., bacteria. Please note that “yogurt” in the form of a candy coating (yogurt-covered pretzels, I’m looking at you) is not yogurt and, alas, not healthy.  

Regular or Greek?

Regular yogurt is made from milk that gets tart and thick thanks to the added cultures. Greek yogurt is regular yogurt that’s been strained so that it gets even thicker. This thickening actually works to accomplish two great things, nutrition-wise: it concentrates the protein – doubling or, in some cases, even tripling it – while reducing the naturally occurring sugar (lactose), much of which drains out with the whey (the liquid left after straining). One 5.3-ounce serving of Greek yogurt can offer as much as 20 grams of protein (as well as a quarter of your daily calcium needs), making it a satisfying, energy-boosting, and nearly instant meal. (Icelandic yogurt, also called Skyr, is also strained, and similar to Greek yogurt, nutrient-wise.)

The takeaway:

  • Choose Greek Yogurt (or Icelandic Skyr)

  • Look for 12 or more grams of protein per 5.3-ounce serving

Nonfat, low-fat, or whole-milk?

Although researchers are not exactly sure why this is true – and although we’ve been led to believe the opposite for decades – whole-milk products, including yogurt, may actually be better for you than their lower-fat or nonfat counterparts. A number of studies have found that people who consume whole-milk dairy products are less likely to be overweight or obese than people who consume low-fat dairy

In adults, higher-fat dairy products are associated with healthier triglyceride levels, a marker of heart disease, than their lower-fat counterparts.

Plus, whole-milk yogurt tends to be lower in naturally-occurring sugar than lower-fat yogurt. And if all that doesn’t convince you? Higher-fat yogurt is simply richer and more delicious, which means that you’ll be more likely to eat it plain or with as little added sweetener as possible.

The takeaway:

  • Choose Whole-Milk Yogurt (or 2%)

  • Look for 2 or more grams of fat per 5.3-ounce serving

Plain or flavored?

If you already like plain, unsweetened yogurt, then read no further! You’re all set. Buy it, eat it, love yourself. Because while unsweetened yogurt is a wonderful, nutrient-dense food, sweetened yogurt offers diminishing returns. Sure, it’s healthier than soda – after all, it’s still got protein and calcium – but the added sugar is going to dramatically jack up the carbs and wreak havoc on your blood glucose levels. If you don’t eat your yogurt plain, then look very carefully at the label so that you can be certain you’re choosing a yogurt with less than 20 grams of total carbs – and ideally that number will be closer to 15 or even 10.  (For reference: plain, whole-milk Greek yogurt contains 5 to 9 grams of naturally occurring carbs from the milk itself.) Thanks to Nordic tastes, Icelandic Skyr, even in its flavored incarnations, tends to have less added sugar than its American or Greek counterparts.

Some yogurts are sweetened artificially (with aspartame, acesulfame potassium, or sucralose) or with naturally-derived stevia. I’m not a huge fan of artificial sweeteners, but stevia seems to be safe, and possibly beneficial for people with diabetes, but it’s still relatively new and a little under-researched for my personal comfort (also, I find it has a bitter aftertaste).

The takeaway:

  • Choose Plain Yogurt (or choose sweetened or flavored yogurt very carefully)

  • Look for 20 or fewer grams of carbohydrates per 5.3-ounce serving

  • Avoid artificial sweeteners (and flavors and colors, while you’re at it) and do your research about Stevia

Beware any yogurt – especially kids’ yogurt – in 2-ounce tubes or 4-ounce tubs (Danimals Yo-Tubes, Yoplait Gogurt, and and Activia, I’m looking at you), which might seem to offer a reasonable amount of sugar until you recalibrate the serving size.

For example, converted to 5.3 ounces, a Gogurt Sour Patch Kids tube would have 30 grams of carbs and only 6 grams of protein. Yikes!

What else might you see on a yogurt label?

  • Thickeners, which might include pectin, gelatin, agar, guar gum, and corn or tapioca starch. These are not inherently bad or harmful, but they may indicate a product that lacks natural richness.

  • Artificial flavors or colors: avoid these.

  • An indication that the milk is non-GMO, organic, or from cows not treated with rBGH (a growth hormone). These are all good and potentially expensive things, and you can pay more attention to them if your budget allows.

  • The size of the container. If you find a yogurt you love, by all means buy it in quart-sized containers (it will be cheaper). Just make sure to keep an eye on the portions you serve.

The Taste-Test

The taste-test was wildly unscientific, and involved my daughter and husband one afternoon, a handful of teenagers much later that night, and some cousins the next day. For the sweetened yogurt, we stuck (mostly) with vanilla so that we could compare a single flavor across multiple brands. This doesn’t mean that vanilla is always going to be the best or healthiest flavor of any given brand.

Plain Unsweetened Greek Yogurt

This is what I hope you’ll grow to love, because it has so much going for it. Try it first with a spoonful of low-sugar jam, then graduate to a handful of berries as you get used to the tart flavor.

Winner: Fage Total Plain 5%

7 ounces / $1.39

Protein: 18 grams

Fat: 10 grams

Carbs: 6 grams

(Conversion to 5.3 ounces: $1.05; protein: 13.5; fat: 7.5 g; carbs: 4.5)

Profoundly rich and creamy, and – for plain yogurt – only mildly tart. Stir a teaspoonful of vanilla extract into this and see if you can pass this off as sweetened.

Runner-up: Stonyfield Organic Greek Whole Milk Plain Yogurt

5.3 ounces / $1.99

Protein: 14 grams

Fat: 5 grams

Carbs: 6 grams

Not quite as rich or creamy as the Fage (the fat-content disparity surely accounts for this), this is nevertheless a lovely plain yogurt, with the added benefit to you and the planet of being organic.

Semi-Sweetened Greek Yogurt

Winner (and only entry): Chobani “A Hint of Flavor” Low-Fat Blended Greek Yogurt

5.3 ounces / $1.49

Protein: 12 grams

Fat: 2.5 grams

Carbs: 10-11 grams

Although most of the Chobani sweetened yogurts have more carbs than my top picks, this line is kind of brilliant in its whispery way – like the flavored seltzer of the yogurt world. It’s not as sweet as sweetened yogurt, but not as tart as unsweetened, and you might consider it a kind of gateway into the land of plain. The fruit flavors are really good and, as the website claims, “subtly sweet.”

Vanilla Greek Yogurt

Winner: Oikos whole-milk Tahitian Vanilla

5.3 ounces / $1.25

Protein: 11 grams

Fat: 4 grams

Carbs: 16 grams

This was a teen favorite. “The flavor wowed me,” said one, and another said, “That’s just really good yogurt.” Considering the relatively high carb load, I wish there were more protein, but this is still a pretty good snack.

Vanilla Icelandic Yogurt

Winner: Icelandic Provisions Vanilla Skyr

5.3 ounces / $1.69

Protein: 15 grams

Fat: 2 grams

Carbs: 14 grams

Tasters commented on the thick texture and the appealing flecks of vanilla bean, and liked the flavor, although one called it “kind of natural-tasting” in a way that I did not take to be a compliment. This was my personal favorite of the vanilla yogurts, and I love its nutritional profile.

Also-ran: In this category, the very tart Siggi’s brand made young testers unhappy, although I liked it fine.

Organic Vanilla Greek Yogurt

Stonyfield Organic Whole Milk Greek Vanilla Bean

5.3 ounces / $2.49

Protein: 13 grams

Fat: 5 grams

Carbs: 14 grams

Good for you and the planet, this one comes from healthy, happy, grazing cows. Plus, it’s delicious. “Just a good, basic yogurt,” one taster said. “Classic and creamy.”

Weird Outlier

Dannon Light & Fit Zero Greek Vanilla

5.3 ounces / $1.25

Protein: 13 grams

Fat: 0 grams

Carbs: 12 grams

Fiber: 3 grams

Although Dannon’s regular Light & Fit line contains both artificial flavors and artificial sweeteners, it’s sweetened with sugar and stevia leaf extract. Honestly, it’s not my first pick – it’s nonfat and thus contains multiple thickeners to compensate, plus the stevia gives it a bitter aftertaste. But if you’re trying to wean anybody (yourself, say) off of really sweet yogurt, this might be a good way to go: it’s very creamy and, yes, very sweet. Plus, there’s added chicory-root fiber, which does seem like a good, if strange, thing.

About Catherine

Catherine loves to write about food and feeding people. In addition to her recipe and parenting blog Ben & Birdy (which has about 15,000 weekly readers), she edits the ChopChop series of mission-driven cooking magazines. This kids’ cooking magazine won the James Beard Publication of the Year award in 2013 – the first non-profit ever to win it – and a Parents’ Choice Gold Award. Last year they started the WIC version of the magazine for families enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and are currently developing Seasoned, their senior version, commissioned by the AARP. They distribute over a million magazines annually, through paid subscriptions, doctor’s offices, schools, and hospitals. Their mission started with obesity as its explicit focus – and has shifted, over the years, to a more holistic one, with health and happiness at its core. That’s the same vibe Catherine brings to the diaTribe column.

[Photo Credit: Catherine Newman]

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