Conveniently enough, yogurt is as nutritious as it is delicious. Studies have linked yogurt—and the essential vitamins, minerals, macronutrients, and other compounds it contains—to health benefits like improved digestion, better bone health, balanced blood pressure numbers, and more. But are all yogurts created equal? The simple answer is no. There are significant differences between fat-free, low-fat, and full-fat yogurts as well as between organic yogurt and processed yogurt. Plus, Greek yogurt has more going for it than trendiness. In this article, we’ll cover the basics of yogurt nutrition facts and highlight key differences between varieties so you can trim the time spent in the yogurt section trying to interpret all the labels and ingredients.
Why It’s Good to Eat Yogurt
Yogurt is a beloved staple of many households. This versatile food can be eaten solo as a quick, easy snack or added to just about any meal to deliver a creamy punch of protein and other nutrients. One of our favorite uses for yogurt is to add it to a fruit or veggie smoothie for a tasty, healthy, and portable breakfast.
According to registered dietician Elaine Magee of WebMD, yogurt offers many health benefits, including helping to prevent osteoporosis, reduce the risk of hypertension, maintain gastrointestinal health, prevent yeast infections, and provide a feeling of fullness that helps distract from unhealthy snacking between meals. These benefits are attributed to a few key ingredients. So it’s important to take a close look at each yogurt container to make sure they are included.
Making Sense of Yogurt Nutrition Facts
There is, of course, no way to generalize the nutrition facts and ingredients list for every type of yogurt out there. However, there are certain consistencies between varieties, as well as certain ingredients that make more major contributions to the health value of yogurt. Equipped with the following facts, you’ll be able to make quicker, smarter decisions when you’re staring down a case full of seemingly endless options for yogurt and other dairy products.
When you’re reading over a yogurt nutrition facts label, these are the five items that you should pay the most attention to.
As you’re almost certainly aware, yogurt is a phenomenal source of protein. If you’re looking for yogurt with the highest amount of protein possible, opt for Greek yogurt, which has a higher protein count than regular yogurt. Eating Greek yogurt between meals is a great way to feel full and avoid unhealthy snacking. It’s also a convenient way to add some protein to a morning fruit or veggie smoothie.
That said, regular yogurt contains plenty of protein too. Plain, whole milk yogurt provides 8.5 grams of protein in a 1-cup serving size.
Yogurt contains two different types of protein: whey and casein. Casein, which makes up 80% of the protein found in yogurt, remains solid in water while whey, which makes up the remaining 20%, dissolves. Both are easily absorbed and digested and contain all the essential amino acids. Whey, however, is especially high in the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which have impressive benefits for muscle growth and exercise performance. No wonder whey is so popular with weight lifters and other athletes!
Since yogurt can be made from all kinds of milk, the fat content can vary widely. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, nonfat yogurt contains 0.4% fat while full-fat, whole milk yogurt contains 3.3% fat and above.
Yogurt contains a few different types of fats, as well as 400 unique fatty acids. Analysis shows that saturated fat accounts for 70% of yogurt’s total fat content, with monounsaturated fat and trans fats making up the remainder. In general, trans fats should be avoided, but the type found in yogurt—called ruminant trans fats or dairy trans fats—can be quite healthful. Yogurt contains particular high concentrations of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which can encourage weight loss and reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Most of the carbs in plain yogurt come from two simple sugars: lactose and galactose. Thanks to the fermentation process used to make yogurt, it contains significantly less lactose than milk does, which can make it more tolerable for individuals who are lactose intolerant.
During the fermentation process, lactose breaks down into galactose and glucose. Then, glucose gets converted into lactic acid, which provides yogurt and other fermented dairy products with their signature tart, tangy taste.
Some yogurts, particularly nonfat types and flavored options, contain added sugar and other sweeteners that increase their carb content significantly.
According to the USDA database, sugar content in yogurt stretches from a low of 4.7% in plain, whole milk yogurt to highs of 18.6% or greater in low-fat yogurt with added fruit.
If you pay attention to health news, you’ve probably come across the term probiotics before. Think of probiotics as good bacteria that are required to maintain healthy regulation of the gastrointestinal tract. Eating a probiotic-rich yogurt often benefits gastrointestinal health. Studies have linked the consumption of probiotic-rich yogurt to improved symptoms for a variety of conditions including:
- Lactose intolerance
- Colon cancer
- Inflammatory bowel disease
As long as yogurt has not been heat-treated after fermentation, it contains some live, active cultures from the probiotic starter cultures (Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus) used to make it.
However, some contain additional strains of probiotic bacteria, which can augment the health benefits of yogurt. These added strains—for instance, Bifidobacterium lactis or Lactobacillus case—can survive in the intestines, meaning they have a far greater impact on your health than the probiotics from starter cultures.
If you look over the yogurt ingredients list, you should be able to find the specific types of bacteria that have been added.
5. Vitamins and Minerals
A number of factors influence the concentrations of various vitamins and minerals found in yogurt, including the kind of bacteria used to ferment the milk.
High-quality, full-fat yogurt contains a wealth of vitamins and nutrients, including:
- Vitamin B2: Yogurt and other dairy foods are far and away the most significant dietary sources of vitamin B2, also called riboflavin, in the modern American diet. This vitamin makes key contributions to energy metabolism and also helps your body absorb iron.
- Vitamin B12: Our bodies need vitamin B12 for optimal brain function, among other things. Yogurt is a top source of this vital nutrient, especially for vegetarians, since many other highly concentrated sources are meat and fish.
- Vitamin D: Yogurt is rich in vitamin D, which we need to build and maintain healthy teeth and bones. It also makes hair strong and lustrous and boosts the immune system to fight off illness. Some yogurts have up to 20% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D.
- Calcium: Getting the recommended amount of calcium is critical to preventing bone loss that leads to osteoporosis. According to The National Academy of Medicine, adults aged 19 through 50 should be getting around 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day. Calcium content in yogurt will vary by brand, but some yogurts offer anywhere from 18-25% of the recommended daily calcium intake.
- Phosphorus: This mineral also contributes to bone health and energy metabolism, plus it helps your body create new cells. Dairy foods, like yogurt, typically account for between 20% and 30% of the average American’s phosphorus intake.
Which Type of Yogurt Should You Buy?
When perusing the yogurt section of the grocery store, there are dozens of options to choose from. Yogurts differ not only by brand but by type of yogurt. There is Greek yogurt, which offers a higher protein content than most other yogurts. There are many types of yogurt with added flavors ranging from familiar options like strawberry to more adventurous choices such as passionfruit and açai. There are even yogurts that come with granola and dried fruit included, meaning they’re perfect for an on-the-go parfait but also likely to contain more sugar.
Focusing on one key fact—the type of milk used to make the yogurt itself—can help you narrow those options to a manageable number. Yogurt manufacturers typically indicate this on the front of the label. These are the phrases you’ll usually see that indicate what type of milk was used: fat-free or nonfat yogurt, low-fat yogurt, and full-fat yogurt.
Fat-Free or Nonfat Yogurt
While phrases like fat-free and nonfat might look appealing on a yogurt label, they should be treated with caution. Fat-free and nonfat yogurts tend to have very high sugar contents. These yogurts don’t taste as good or as sweet as low-fat or full fat yogurts do, so extra sugar and artificial sweeteners are added to compensate for the lack of flavor and sweetness.
Be wary of yogurts with ingredient lists featuring the words corn syrup, cane sugar, or fructose, as these are all different words for sugar. If you see these on your yogurt’s ingredients list, be aware that you might be consuming up to 50-60% of the daily recommended allowance of sugar in just one serving of yogurt.
Like fat-free and nonfat yogurts, low-fat yogurt may also be high in sugar and artificial sweeteners.
There are several kinds of artificial sweeteners often used in yogurts. Common artificial sweeteners include saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose.
According to Harvard Health, artificial sweeteners contain a variety of health risks, including the risk of addiction, which ultimately leads to poor food choices and an unhealthy lifestyle.
A general rule of thumb when it comes to yogurt nutrition is the lower the fat, the higher the sugar. People with underlying health issues, such as diabetes, should be especially cautious when it comes to consuming fat-free and low-fat yogurts.
Full-fat yogurt doesn’t equal unhealthy yogurt, and it doesn’t equal weight gain. For anyone trying to stay in shape or drop a few pounds, seeing the words full-fat on a food label can be a major deterrent. But remember, eating full-fat yogurt doesn’t mean that fat will be transferred directly to your waistline.
Full-fat yogurt is made from whole milk. Nutritionally, this means that while there is a higher fat content in full-fat yogurt than in fat-free or low-fat yogurts, there is also a lower sugar content and higher protein content.
Full-fat yogurts help create a feeling of fullness and help you avoid the excess sugar or potentially dangerous artificial sweeteners found in fat-free and low-fat varieties.
Is Organic Yogurt Worth It?
The question of whether or not organic foods, including organic yogurt, are worth the extra cost can turn up dramatically different answers depending on who you ask. All yogurt branded with the USDA Certified Organic seal must adhere to federal guidelines that regulate how cows are fed and prevent the use of antibiotics and hormones, among other things.
Advocates for organic food not only believe that these animal raising practices are more humane, but also that they yield more nutritious products for human consumers.
Studies have shown that organic milk outperforms conventional milk in certain areas, including:
- Fatty acid profile
- Beta-carotene levels
- Vitamin E levels
- Iron levels
Yet it seems organic milk can contain less selenium and iodine.
The primary determinant of milk’s nutrient content appears to be the diet of the cows it came from, which makes sense. But there’s not a clear, consistent link between cows raised in accordance with the USDA’s organic guidelines and more nutrient-rich milk.
Ultimately, whether or not organic yogurt is worth it will depend on the importance you place on the animal raising practices controlled by the USDA guidelines. Some feel the terms “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised” can be more indicative of both humane farming practices as well as nutrient-dense dairy products.