Is it just us, or did the dairy aisle get a little longer over the past decade?
The section used to be 90% milk and cheese and featured a small area dedicated to other lactose-related items, like butter, cream — and yogurt. There were only a few yogurt brands available — Yoplait, Danone, Go-GURT — and at the time, the snack held a similar social standing to applesauce. It was something you packed in your kid’s lunchbox. A spoonful of sugar if you were headed out the door.
Then came the Greek yogurt revolution. When Chobani launched in 2007, Greek yogurt accounted for less than 1% of the yogurt market in the United States. By 2017, it accounted for half of the category. During that period, Chobani became a billion-dollar company. Yoplait decided Greek was a fad, realized its mistake (as parent General Mills registered serious losses), then scrambled to take a slice of the pie. The original Greek yogurt distributor, Fage, which had modestly entered the American market in 1998, began building plants across the country. And spiritually-similar yogurt types, like Iceland’s skyr, under the Siggi’s label, learned to ride Greek yogurt’s coattails to notoriety and success.
That‘s why the dairy aisle is now more of an undertaking than it used to be. As for how it all happened? Yogurt was reinvented. To be clear, Greek yogurt is no marketing term. It’s a real, scientific process, by which whey, the liquid product after milk curdles, is removed from the yogurt. This makes the yogurt almost twice as thick and gives it its tart taste. “Greek” is used in the modifier because this method has roots in the Mediterranean. But it’s long been common practice all over the world, from Syria to South Asia.
It just didn’t reach mainstream America until the last 10 years, when brands like Chobani and Fage successfully managed to introduce their high-protein yogurts as a health-conscious choice. This was something adults could, and in fact, should, be eating. Less preservatives, less garish, made-for-Nickelodeon packaging. Just a healthier, more dignified yogurt, which will strengthen your bones, reduce your appetite, boost your metabolism and lower your blood pressure. When it all really took off, Fage was producing almost five times its manufacturing capacity in a single New York State plant.
Today, Greek yogurt is firmly part of the conversation, and there’s a near overwhelming number of options. What makes it trickier, certain brands can market their yogurt as “Greek yogurt” even if it’s only a thicker strain. Meaning, they’re selling a heavier, tart-tasting yogurt, without actually going through the straining process. They achieve that thickness by adding bogus preservatives and agents, which you definitely don’t want to be eating. Beyond Greek yogurt, meanwhile, there are still healthier yogurt options that simply come from different sources. Like goat’s milk yogurt, for example.
In order to make sense of the dairy aisle once and for all, we reached out to Karin Adoni Ben-David, a certified nutritionist and health coach who maintains a private practice in Los Angeles and has previously worked as the Head of Nutrition at Reebok Sports in New York. Ben-David has already helped us figure out which energy bars are actually healthy, and recently set the record straight on sports drinks, too. This time around, we sent her the ingredients lists of eight different yogurts on the market — from the Chobani to Siggi’s — and asked her to do a blind power-ranking, from least healthy to most.
Below, you’ll find Karin’s rankings and an explanation for each.
Ingredients: Filtered Water, Coconut Cream, Pea Protein Isolate, Creamed Coconut, Potato Protein, Chicory Root Extract, Cane Sugar, Vegan Natural Flavors, Potato Starch, Lactic Acid (Vegan), Rice Starch, Tricalcium Phosphate, Tamarind Seed Gum, Locust Bean Gum, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Guar Gum, Sea Salt, Vitamin D Yeast, L. plantarum, L. casei, Vitamin B12.
Ben-David Says: “This keeps up on the protein front but is highly processed and contains unhealthy preservatives. Yes, it is a vegan alternative to regular yogurt, which is a great source of protein for vegans. But, it’s packed with thickeners, preservatives, sugar, and starch. Accordingly, not a great “vegan” product.”
Ingredients: Grade A Pasteurized Whole Milk, Fruit Puree (Blackberries, Water, Sugar, Acai Puree, Locust Bean Gum, Pectin, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Natural Flavors), Cane Sugar, Honey, Kosher Gelatin, Pectin, Live Active Cultures (S. Thermophilus, L. Bulgaricus, L. Acidophilus, Bifidus, L. Casei).
Ben-David Says: “This yogurt is basically sugar; the second, third and fourth ingredients are all sugar! Yes, it does have active live bacteria, but this is not something I would recommend to anyone.”
Ingredients: Nonfat yogurt (cultured pasteurized nonfat milk), blueberries, cane sugar, water, fruit pectin, locust bean gum, natural flavors, lemon juice concentrate.
Ben-David Says: “The first ingredient is low-fat yogurt which means the product is lower in calories and fat. That can be good for someone who is looking for a low-calorie option. I like that real fruits are included, with blueberries for the second ingredient, but the third ingredient is sugar, and that means this product contains a good amount of it. Having natural flavors, thickeners, and preservatives make the overall product not clean enough.”
Ingredients: Pasteurized Skim Milk, Organic Agave Nectar, Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla, Fruit Pectin, Live Active Cultures
Ben-David Says: “The second ingredient is agave which is basically sugar and not the best type. Even though agave was marketed smartly as a low glycemic sweetener, it actually has the highest levels of fructose — even more than the notoriously known high fructose corn syrup. I wouldn’t go with this product because of this. The rest of the ingredients are good though, so this is an average pick.”
Ingredients: Cultured Pasteurized Organic Whole Milk, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Strawberry Juice Concentrate, Natural Flavor, Pectin, Organic Vegetable Juice Concentrate (For Color), Lactase Enzyme, Vitamin D3.
Ben-David Says: “Contains a high amount of live bacteria, enzymes, and D3, which is all great. However, it has added sugar and Strawberry Juice Concentrate. This product is organic which can appeal to some people who want to be healthier, but I don’t like to see sugar as the second and third ingredient.”
Ingredients: Cultured Grade A Non Fat Milk, Water, Cane Sugar, Corn Starch, Contains Less Than 1% of Natural Flavors, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Carob Bean Gum, Vegetable Juice (for Color), Vitamin D3.
Ben-David Says: “This product is low-fat which is nice if you want to watch your fat intake. It doesn’t have a lot of whistle and bang ingredients, but still lists sugar as the third ingredient.”
Ingredients: Grade A Pasteurized Whole Goat Milk, Tapioca Starch, Pectin, and Live and Active Cultures.
Ben-David Says: “This is made from goat’s milk which is easier to digest for some people. It doesn’t have any added sugar which is fantastic! It does have tapioca starch which is not a bad choice, while adding live bacteria is always good.”
Ingredients: Grade A Pasteurized Skimmed Milk, Live Active Yogurt Cultures (L. Bulgaricus, S.Thermophilus, L. Acidophilus, Bifidus, L. Casei).
Ben-David Says: “Great product with no unnecessary added sugar, preservatives or thickness. It contains a good amount of protein and live bacteria which is great for the digestive system. If you would like to sweeten it, add 100% maple or honey and some fruits, and stevia or monk fruit if you are looking for no-calorie sweeteners.”