March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
The grocery store dairy aisle has gone multicultural. In the last several years, a mind-blowing 2,500-percent increase in sales of Greek-style yogurt have lead the charge in a diversifying yogurt section. A shopper in 2007 had essentially two decisions to make when choosing yogurt: "fruit on the bottom" or the kind with strawberries or blueberries already mixed in. Now, a consumer can select from the following: full-fat, low-fat or non-fat; Greek or regular; drinkable Kefir; organic or conventional; and even yogurts with added fiber — with more varieties probably being added as you read this.
Yogurt is one of humanity's oldest processed foods, with evidence of its creation potentially going back 7,000 years. It's made and used in a variety of ways in societies from India to Europe to the Middle East to Africa. All these varieties of yogurt share a few things in common. Each is made with live cultures, which are a type of good bacteria that transform liquid milk into the sour taste and thick consistency of yogurt. Academy Spokesperson Sarah Krieger, MPH, RDN, LDN, says all yogurts contain important nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, protein, potassium and B vitamins.
No matter the type you choose, Krieger has one piece of advice: "Eat the whey!" The whey is the liquid that can pool at the top of a yogurt container, and it is the source of much of yogurt's calcium. You can stir it back into the rest of the yogurt. "Use it in smoothies or instead of water in hot cereal," Krieger suggests.
Whey (actually the absence of it) is key to Greek yogurt. "Greek yogurt has most of the whey removed" through a process of straining, Krieger says. "Leaving a product that is thicker, with more protein, but less calcium — unless calcium is added back. Read the ingredients to see if calcium has been added."
Lactose Intolerance Help and Other Health Benefits
For people with lactose intolerance who don't want to give up on dairy's nutritional benefits, yogurt can be a good option. "Yogurt contains less lactose than ice cream and milk," Krieger says. "A person with many symptoms from lactose intolerance should eat yogurt with other foods — including nuts, fruit or cereal — and possibly in smaller amounts."
Yogurt has less lactose because the introduced bacteria – also called "live cultures" with names such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. casei, L. reuteri and Bicfidobacterium bifidum (or Bifidus) — help digest the lactose. Even for people with no problems digesting lactose in other forms of dairy, live cultures in yogurt are still beneficial. They promote overall gut health and immunity. To make sure the yogurt product you're considering has these cultures, either look on the ingredient label for the bacteria listed above or the National Yogurt Association's "Live and Active Cultures" seal.
More Yogurt Options
Other recent yogurt products added to store shelves include drinkable yogurt, kefir, squeezable yogurt and yogurt with added fiber. For these products, Krieger advises buyers to check nutrition labels and ingredient lists. Look out for added colors or sugars, especially in the kinds marketed to kids.