Yogurt is often marketed as a healthy food. However, added sugar and flavorings added to many yogurts can alter their health-promoting properties.
This is one of the reasons that choosing between all the options in the grocery store yogurt aisle can be confusing.
Follow this guide to find out what to look for and what to avoid when shopping for healthier yogurt options.
Reading the label is an important first step when deciding what food to buy. This is because understanding the label is essential to knowing what’s really in your food.
If you know what to look for, the label can tell you a lot about each yogurt.
Although all yogurts start out as plain yogurt, by the time they make it to the refrigerated section of the store, they can contain various added ingredients, like sugar, artificial flavors, dyes, stabilizers, and preservatives.
When possible, choose a yogurt with few ingredients. They should include milk, the bacterial cultures used to turn milk into yogurt, and not much else. If you consume nondairy-based yogurt, the same holds true — make sure that your ingredient list includes as few items as possible.
Ingredients are listed by weight, so avoid yogurts that have sugar listed near the top. Better yet, simply avoid all yogurts that have any type of added sugar on the ingredient list.
Sugar can be listed under many different names, including:
- high fructose corn syrup
- fruit juice
- cane sugar
- agave nectar
The nutrition facts on the label can give you some of the most specific information.
The serving size and calories per serving are listed at the top. The nutrition facts can also tell you how many carbs, fat, protein, and sugar are in each serving.
Note that there may be more than one serving per container, meaning there are more calories too.
In the past, the nutrition label did not distinguish added sugar from naturally occurring sugar, which could make it difficult to tell how much sugar had been added.
However, labeling guidelines have
The nutrition information will also tell you how much calcium and vitamin D each yogurt serving contains.
Ideally, your yogurt will contain vitamin D and a significant part of your daily calcium needs. This will be listed as percent of Daily Value (% DV) on the label.
Reading the label is the first thing you should do when choosing a yogurt. The nutrition facts and ingredients list can tell you a lot about what’s in your yogurt.
The main ingredient that can turn yogurt from a healthier food into a less healthy one is added sugar.
The average American’s intake of added sugar increased from 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) per year in 1700 to over 150 pounds (68.2 kilograms) per year by the early 2000s (1).
Current statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find that adults ages 20 years and older on average consume 17 teaspoons of sugar daily (
By race/ethnicity, on average, non-Hispanic Black adults consume 19 teaspoons, 17 teaspoons for non-Hispanic white adults, 16 teaspoons for Hispanic adults, and 10 teaspoons for non-Hispanic Asian adults (
Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as sodas, fruit drinks, and sports drinks, are the main source of added sugar; about 49% of adults drink one daily (
However, processed foods with added sugar can include sweetened yogurts and help contribute to total sugar intake.
Eating added sugar in excess has been linked with the development of many health conditions, including:
Although yogurt already contains some natural sugar in the form of lactose (milk sugar), some food companies add sugars to give it a sweeter taste.
Plain yogurt typically contains around 9–12 grams of carbs per cup (245 grams), but the same amount of flavored or sweetened yogurt can easily contain 30 or more grams for the same serving size (
When selecting yogurt, the better option is to pick brands with the least sugar per serving. This means as little as possible over the around 7 grams per cup (245 grams) that is already present from lactose.
Typically, the best choice is plain, unflavored yogurt. But if you don’t like plain yogurt, there are a few things you can try instead.
One option is to sweeten it yourself with your favorite fresh fruit.
You can also make your own chia seed yogurt to make plain yogurt less tart. And, as a bonus, you’ll get extra protein, fiber, and healthy fats with the chia seeds. Simply mix 2 cups (473 mL) of yogurt with 1.5–2 tablespoons (22–30 mL) of chia seeds and let it sit overnight in the fridge.
Added sugar can reduce the benefits of an otherwise healthy food. Choose plain yogurt when possible and always read the label to find out if sugar has been added.
Dairy-based yogurt can be made from whole, low fat, or fat free milk.
While low fat or fat free dairy may be lower in calories, reduced fat yogurt typically contains more sugar, which is added to compensate for the loss of flavor from fat. So if you choose low fat yogurt, be sure to look for one without added sugar.
Full fat yogurt is also available. Although it does contain more calories than plain low fat yogurt, that does not necessarily make it a less healthy choice. In fact, the fats found in full fat dairy products may be beneficial.
Dairy products contain some naturally occurring trans fats. They are unlike the trans fats found in some processed foods that may have negative health effects.
Dairy fat, namely conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), can offer some health-promoting benefits, including:
- reducing the risk of heart disease (7)
- reducing body fat and inflammation (7,
- improving blood sugar management (9)
- fighting cancer cells, according to animal studies (7)
Both plain unsweetened low fat and full fat yogurt can be healthy. You can choose which type to eat based on your dietary habits, food preferences, and calorie goals.
Yogurt can be made from reduced fat or full fat milk. Reduced fat yogurt is only lower in calories if it has no added sugar. Both can be healthier choices.
Healthy probiotic bacteria are used to make yogurt. They turn the milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid, which causes the yogurt to taste sour.
These probiotic bacteria, often referred to as “live cultures” in yogurt, can offer many health benefits. Although research on probiotics is still in the early stages, studies suggest that they may:
- improve symptoms of lactose intolerance (10)
- stimulate the immune system (
- significantly reduce symptoms of depression (
- reduce the risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in children and adults (
- improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (
Other research has found that probiotic yogurts may help lower cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure (
All yogurts contain these live cultures at first, since they are the ingredient that turns milk into yogurt. However, the probiotic content of yogurts can vary greatly depending on several factors, including packaging methods and storage conditions.
To get the most benefits from your yogurt, choose the one with the most probiotics. However, it can be hard to tell how much each yogurt option contains.
The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) offers a “Live and Active Cultures” seal for yogurts that contain 100 million cultures (bacteria) per gram at the time of testing. This is the seal: Image Source: IDFA.
The IDFA states that some yogurts may contain live and active cultures without carrying the seal (20). Getting the seal can cost thousands of dollars, and brands may opt to go without it, even if they meet the qualifications.
The most important thing is to avoid yogurts that have been heat treated, or pasteurized after the probiotics are added. Pasteurization kills the bacteria, which must be alive to benefit you. These yogurt labels should say “heat treated after culturing” (19).
Probiotics are the friendly bacteria that turn milk into yogurt. Look for yogurts with the “Live and Active Cultures” seal and avoid those that have been pasteurized after production.
There are many different types of yogurt available. Here’s how the different varieties compare.
Greek, nondairy or regular yogurt?
Greek yogurt is currently a big trend in yogurt. It differs from traditional yogurt because it is strained more times, removing some of the whey and lactose.
This gives Greek yogurt about twice as much protein as traditional yogurt and around half the carbs (
However, this means Greek yogurt is also typically higher in calories and fat and contains less calcium than traditional yogurt.
Like other types of yogurt, many brands are also filled with added sugar.
Dairy-free yogurts, such as soy or coconut yogurt, have also become popular. Because they are plant-based, they are much lower in fat than traditional yogurt and do not contain lactose.
These are ideal choices for vegans and people with lactose intolerance. However, they do not naturally contain much calcium, so be sure to check the label for a brand with added calcium and vitamin D.
Greek yogurt, nondairy, and regular yogurt can all be healthy options, but none are necessarily healthier than the others.
Organic or not?
To carry the USDA organic seal, milk must be from cows fed with organic, non-GMO feed and not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.
However, whether organic foods are better is highly debated, and the use of GMOs and growth hormones in dairy farming remains extremely controversial.
The nutritional content of organic versus conventional foods is controversial as well, although there do appear to be differences when it comes to organic dairy.
For example, studies have found that organic milk has a better fatty-acid profile and higher beta carotene, vitamin E, and iron content than conventional milk (
However, it also appears that organic milk is lower in the minerals selenium and iodine (
Interestingly, these variations are most likely due to differences in the diet of the cows. They do not necessarily depend on whether the farming practices were organic or conventional (
Overall, it’s hard to say if organic really is better than conventional when it comes to nutritional and health benefits.
Greek yogurt has more protein and fewer carbs, while dairy-free yogurt tends to have less fat and no lactose. Organic yogurt may be richer in certain nutrients, but it’s lower in others.
There are many varieties of yogurts to try. Here are a few examples of healthy options.
Stonyfield Organic is a good brand if you like to buy organic. All of their yogurts are organic, and they have many different products to choose from.
They offer grass-fed, whole milk yogurt, Greek yogurt, and a Smooth & Creamy line.
If you prefer flavored yogurt, their fruit-flavored Greek yogurts are all great choices.
However, most of their other fruit-flavored yogurts do contain added sugar.
Siggi’s is another good example of healthier yogurt. Their skyr, a type of yogurt from Iceland, is rich in protein.
Their plain yogurt comes in nonfat, low fat, and whole milk varieties. The nonfat yogurt has only two ingredients: milk and live active cultures.
This yogurt does not have vitamin D added. However, with 16 grams of protein per serving and 4 total grams of sugar in the nonfat version, it is still a good choice.
Since Siggi’s flavored yogurt contains added sugar, plain is the healthiest option.
Fage Total Plain
Fage is a great choice for those who enjoy Greek yogurt.
Like Siggi’s, the Fage Total Plain line of yogurt contains only milk and a variety of live cultures. It is also available in full fat, 2%, and 0% varieties.
However, since it is a Greek yogurt, the calcium content is lower than regular yogurt would be, at about 20% of your daily needs. It also doesn’t contain added vitamin D.
Still, it’s a healthier choice.
But, like the other brands, stick to the plain varieties. The brand’s flavored or fruit-added yogurts contain plenty of added sugar.
There are many brands of healthier yogurt for you to try. Choose varieties with low or no added sugar and a short list of ingredients.
When it comes to yogurt, keeping it healthy means keeping it simple.
Try to pick a yogurt that has few ingredients and as little added sugar as possible. Plain and unsweetened yogurt is best. Apart from that, most choices are up to personal preference.
With these tips, you can feel confident that the yogurt you pick is a healthier and more nutritious choice.