Just check the dairy aisle in any supermarket and you will see rows and rows of different types of yogurt. For those of us who grew up with a much more limited variety, choosing a tub of yogurt can be a daunting task. Greek-style or regular? With sugar or sweeteners? Full fat or no-fat? Will the live cultures still be alive by the time it gets to the table?

Here are the results of a  field project by Emelia Stiverson, a Teachers College, Columbia University dietetic intern who is on her way to become a Registered Dietitian. She scrutinized the labels, compared nutrition, looked into research and came up with a list of the best yogurts for your family.

What’s the difference between regular yogurt and Greek-style yogurt?

Dannon_All_Natural_Nonfat_Plain_57845StonyfieldgreekGreek-style yogurt is made from regular yogurt.  However, Greek-style yogurt has most of the whey (the liquid that can pool at the top of the container) removed through a process of straining, which concentrates the protein in the yogurt.  Whey is a prime source of calcium in yogurt.  As a result of this process, Greek-style yogurt has a thicker consistency, less lactose  (a naturally occurring milk sugar), more protein and less calcium than regular yogurt.

What should I look for when buying yogurt for my family?

1)  Watch Out for Added Sugars and Other Ingredients:  The “sugars” on the Nutrition Facts panel include both naturally-occurring and added sugars.  Since lactose is a sugar, all yogurt will contain some naturally-occurring sugar.  A 6-ounce serving of plain yogurt contains approximately 12 grams of lactose.

yoplait-containerFruit-flavored yogurt varies in the amount of sugar added. On average, a 6-ounce container of fruit-flavored yogurt contains about 26 grams of sugar. Deduct the naturally occurring lactose (12 grams) and you are left with 14 grams or 3.5 teaspoons of added sugar. The maximum amount of added sugar kids can safely enjoy a day is between 4 and 6 teaspoons. Having a serving of flavored yogurt will almost deplete their daily sugar allowance. Light yogurts typically use low-calorie sweeteners to cut back on sugar and calories.  Research shows that many of them are not safe for animals, and there are not a lot of human studies to testify to their safety.

Many of the regular yogurt brands may also contain thickeners, stabilizers, gums, or artificial colorings – things that our kids are already getting enough of from less seemingly healthy choices like candy.  And although it may be tempting to buy yogurt that is paired with containers of mix-ins (such as granola, cookies, or candy), most of these add-ons are laden with sugar.

2)  Look for Live and Active Cultures:   Live and active cultures refer to the two strains of bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus which convert pasteurized milk to yogurt during fermentation.

Research is still on the way to see if there is a definitive link between live and active culture yogurt and certain health effects.  But it is clear that yogurt has less lactose than ice cream and milk. This is because these live and active cultures help digest the lactose.  As a result, those who are lactose intolerant may still enjoy yogurt without the unpleasant consequences like diarrhea, gas, bloating, or abdominal cramping.

3)  Fat Content: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids younger than 2 years are not recommended to eat or drink skim or low-fat dairy products. Older children, on the other hand, are ready for reduced and fat-free dairy.

Total-Fage-cupFull-fat varieties of yogurt are made from whole milk or whole milk plus cream.  As a result, a 7-ounce container of full-fat yogurt like Fage Total Classic Plain Greek Yogurt has 190 calories and 10 grams of fat (7 grams saturated). A 5.3-ounce serving of Liberté Méditerranée Plain Yogurt has 220 calories and 18 grams of fat (11 grams saturated).  Furthermore, some of the full-fat yogurts, in addition to containing too much fat, have about half the protein of other Greek-style yogurt brands. And although it’s important for young children to consume fat for growth (especially brain growth during the first 2 or 3 years of life), it’s best for children over 2 and adolescents to switch to low-fat or non-fat yogurt to help them stay within their daily fat limits.

Take-Away Message:

What type of yogurt is best for my family?  If your child is 2 or older, it’s best to choose plain non-fat or low-fat yogurt.  Plain yogurt has no added sugar.  Choosing Greek-style yogurt will also provide your child with more protein, fewer carbohydrates, and half the sodium of regular yogurt.

Below are 5 plain non-fat greek-style yogurts that are good options to try:      

  Serving Size  Calories  Fat(g) Sugars(g) Calcium 
Siggi’s 0% Plain  5.3 oz. 80 0 4 20% DV
Dannon Oikos Nonfat Greek   5.3 oz. 80 0 6 15% DV
Stonyfield Organic 0% Greek  5.3 oz. 80 0 6 20% DV
Wallaby Organic Greek Nonfat  6 oz. 100 0 4 20% DV
Fage Total 0%   6 oz. 100 0 7 20% DV

And here are 4 plain regular non-fat and low-fat yogurt options to try:

  Serving Size Calories  Total Fat(g) Sugars(g) Calcium
Stonyfield Smooth & Creamy   6 oz. 80 0 12 25% DV
Dannon All Natural Nonfat  6 oz. 80 0 12 30% DV
Emmi Swiss Low-Fat   6 oz. 110 2.5 10 35% DV
Green Valley Organics Low-Fat   6 oz. 100 2.5 8 30% DV

WholeSoy_Co._Soy_Plain_24oz_85428Looking for a non-dairy yogurt alternative?  Soy yogurts match milk’s protein, and all add calcium.  A 6-ounce container of Whole Soy & Co Plain contains 150 calories, 8 grams of protein, 4.5 grams fat (0.5 grams saturated), and 35% DV of calcium.  A 6-ounce container of Almond Dream Plain Lowfat contains 150 calories, 3 grams fat (0 grams saturated), and 20% DV calcium but it has virtually no protein – around 1 gram per serving. So Delicious Greek Cultured Coconut Milk Plain is another non-dairy option.  But again, each 6-ounce serving contains 4.5 grams of saturated fat and only 2 grams of protein.

How can I add variety to plain non-fat yogurt and sweeten it at home?
Stir in natural peanut butter or almond butter
Add in fresh or unsweetened frozen fruit or chopped nuts
Stir in natural jam or unsweetened coconut
Drizzle in a touch of honey or pure maple syrup

A tip: Once your child is “hooked” on a sweetened yogurt, a plain variety might become a tough sell. So when you are about to start introducing solids to your baby, try a full-fat unsweetened one so that she learns to enjoy the slightly tangy flavor.  And even if you add a teaspoon of fruit puree to it to make it a little more palatable, it will still remain way less sweet than a typical flavored yogurt.

To download the infographics, click on the image below.
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1) http://www.eatright.org/
2) The Official Website of the National Yogurt Association.  Retrieved September 9, 2013, from http://aboutyogurt.com/
3) http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/
4) Center for Science in the Public Interest.  Nutrition Action Health Letter.  September 2013.

5) Hyperlipidemia.  In: Kleinman RE, editor.  Pediatric Nutrition Handbook. 5th ed. Elk Grove Village, IL.  American Academy of Pediatrics; 2004:537-550.