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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Yogurts Are Not Created Equal

For people who tolerate dairy products well, yogurt is a healthy food. Because it's full of protein and contains natural fat, whole milk yogurt satiates hunger and minimizes elevations in blood sugar. It also  promotes good digestion and supports the immune system.

But not all yogurts are created equal.

Common commercial varieties are often laden with sugar, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, corn starch, modified food starch, whey protein concentrate, stabilizers, emulsifiers, preservatives, gelatin, artificial coloring, artificial flavoring, and unpronouncibles like disodium phosphate.

Some even come studded with cookies, candy, or sugary processed breakfast cereals. And to extend shelf life, some manufacturers actually pasteurize their yogurt, killing off the beneficial bacteria.

These sorts of yogurts are junk food, not health food.  

The best yogurt is:
  • Made From Whole Milk
Avoid low-fat and fat-free dairy products. They are processed foods with chemicals added to compensate for the fat that's missing. And our bodies need fat.
  • Grass-Fed
The best yogurt comes from cows who ate their natural diet of grass and other green plants. When cows are raised on pasture, their milk is full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids that have anti-inflammatory actions in the body (cows fed grain produce milk full of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids).
  • Hormone-Free
If you can't find grass-fed dairy products, organic is the next best thing. At least the animals were not given hormones, antibiotics, or pesticide-laden food. These chemicals can make their way into meat and milk and cause health problems in humans.
  • Plain 
Making yogurt requires only 2 ingredients: whole milk (from cows, goats, or sheep) and live bacteria.

The bacteria essential for culturing milk are Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, but yogurt makers often add other friendly bacteria like Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bifidus, Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus reuteri.
  • Full of Live Cultures
Yogurt should say on the label “contains live and active cultures.”

Do not buy products labeled "heat-treated" or “made with live cultures.” You can also look for the Live and Active Cultures (LAC) seal from the National Yogurt Association and the phrase “meets National Yogurt Association criteria for live and active culture yogurt.”

Bacterial cultures give yogurt its characteristic tart and tangy flavor. To please a wider variety of palates, some manufacturers add sweeteners and reduce the amount of live cultures to make the yogurt less tart. Remember that yogurt is supposed to taste tart. It's the healthy bacteria that make it that way.

When you eat whole milk plain yogurt, the creaminess balances the tartness and it's very good unsweetened. Plain Greek yogurt (made by straining the yogurt and also called "strained" yogurt)
 is even thicker and creamier than regular plain yogurt. Removing some of the liquid (whey) gives it a thicker consistency, closer to sour cream.

If you're not won over by its natural flavor, choose plain yogurt anyway and sweeten it yourself with whole fruit and/or small amounts of honey.

If you can, buy your yogurt from a local source or make it yourself. If you're looking for it in grocery stores, Stoneyfield Farm Organic Plain yogurt is widely available, organic, and exceptionally creamy.

As a food, yogurt is incredibly versatile. It makes a great breakfast or snack. It can be used in savory dishes like curries and soups, or in sauces for lamb, beef, and fish. Use it as a garnish for spicy dishes like chili, quesadillas, or huevos rancheros.

Or serve it for dessert: alone or with fruit, layered into a parfait, baked into a clafouti, or frozen into creamsicles. Use fresh fruit in the summer and home-made compote or thawed frozen berries in the winter.

Raspberries give off a ruby red juice as they thaw, which looks stunning against creamy white yogurt (stir it in to make your yogurt pink). If I use frozen, thawed blueberries or strawberries, I usually purée them before serving. These berries retain great flavor after freezing but once they thaw, they seem soggy. A purée is a more pleasing texture and takes just a minute to make in a food processor.

I always taste thawed berries for sweetness before I serve them and, if need be, stir in a little bit of honey. The fruit acids will help dissolve the honey if you let the mixture sit for a few minutes.

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