At one point in time it was enough for a consumer to read labels for calories and fat content before deciding if their yogurt was healthy. However, since the food industry has turned an eye to profits, instead of the overall nutrition value of their product, it has now become necessary to read the list of ingredients for the harmful additives that are being used to keep manufacturing costs to a minimum.
In this study, I compared the calories, macronutrients, and ingredients of 26 different varieties of yogurt to determine if those big, nasty sounding ingredients are as harmful as they sound.
The Highly Profitable Yogurt Industry
In 2015, yogurt sales in the U.S. reached it’s all time high of $7.7 billion dollars, with Greek yogurt increasing in sales by 52% over a six year time span. These numbers are relatively low compared to sales in other countries, but it’s obvious that yogurt is catching on here and sales will continue to climb over the coming years.
The food industry has touted yogurt as one of the healthiest and most affordable foods on the market. It can be served with fruit and granola for a quick breakfast, as a low fat/high protein substitute for mayonnaise, or as an easily packable snack.
But is yogurt actually as healthy as it sounds?
Some varieties are packed with vitamins and minerals, protein, live and active cultures, while others are full of sugar, preservatives, and artificial flavors and dyes.
How does your brand of yogurt stack up to other brands?
Regular Yogurt has been marketed as “healthy and affordable” by the food industry.
Many people gravitate towards yogurt brands like Yoplait and Dannon because they are more affordable. Regular yogurt is also much sweeter than Greek yogurt and has a smoother, creamier texture.
Both Yoplait and Dannon yogurt come in a variety of styles and flavors. Some are drinkable, some are squeezable tubes suited for toddlers on the go, and some are marketed for their probiotic benefiets.
Both brands rank high in taste and texture, but are these yogurt brands as healthy as their companies claim?
Is regular yogurt healthy or harmful?
Below you will find two charts, one where I compared the regular yogurts and the other where I compared the high protein Greek style yogurts.
In the first chart, I compared 11 different varieties of Yoplait and Dannon. For comparison’s sake, I chose to use the strawberry flavor, or a strawberry blend if plain strawberry wasn’t available, for each product. For Yoplait Thick & Creamy I used Peaches ‘N Cream because the Yoplait website didn’t have strawberry listed.
A single serving size for most varieties of regular yogurt is 150g; however, the Dannon Creamy and the Dannon Activia came in a smaller serving size and are only 113g–which means fewer calories but also a smaller amount of food consumed.
The charts below makes it easy to compare the calories and macronutrients (protein, fat, total carbs, & sugars) of each variety of yogurt. While it’s important to look at the calories and macronutrients, these things should not overshadow the ingredients found in each product. A low calorie, low fat yogurt may help with weight loss; however, the detrimental effects of the artificial (and sometimes the natural) flavors, dyes, and fillers need also to be taken into account before determining if your yogurt is healthy or harmful.
If you are on a mobile device, you can scroll to the side to see the entire chart. Please leave a comment if this doesn’t work for you on your device.
*All information in each chart has been taken directly from each company’s website in April 2017. Manufacturers change ingredients on occasion. Savvy consumers should routinely check labels on their favorite products for changes to the ingredients list.
The ingredients listed in the Notes column are used as fillers and emulsifiers, to improve taste in low fat products, and as natural or artificial dyes and sweeteners to name just a few of their purposes. Some of these ingredients have been linked to changes in brain and gut function, while others have been linked to cancer and leukemia. Some have bad sounding names but are quite harmless to consume.
All of the ingredients listed in the “Notes” section (in the right hand column) are discussed in detail at the bottom of this article. The scientific studies, along with other sources of information, are in bold italics and link back to the original source.
The conclusions on the safety of each ingredient is based on FDA and CSPI (a nonprofit consumer watchdog group) findings and not on my personal opinion.
Is high protein Greek style yogurt healthy or harmful?
In this chart you will see 15 varieties of Greek and Icelandic yogurt listed. They range from the cheaper Yoplait and Dannon (Oikos) yogurts to the more expensive Fage, Siggi’s, and Iceland Skyr yogurts. Again, I used the strawberry flavor, or a strawberry blend, to keep the comparison between yogurts on an even scale (the type of food colorings or sweeteners would be similar since the flavor is the same).
The single serving size varied quite a bit between the smaller Yoplait Greek yogurts (113g) and the larger Greek Gods brand (170g). Size, of course, is important when comparing calories and macronutrients.
Again, all ingredients listed in the “Notes” section in the right hand column are written about in detail below with scientific studies and sources of information linked in bold italics. The conclusions on the safety of each ingredient is based on FDA and CSPI (a nonprofit consumer watchdog group) findings and not on my personal opinion.
In conclusion, the Fage and Siggi’s protein yogurts are the healthier choices overall. These two protein yogurts have very few ingredients, include a variety of live and active choices, and contain high amounts of protein which helps regular blood sugar. On the flip side, some of the other protein yogurts rank right up there with Fage and Siggi’s as long as you don’t have GI discomfort from the all natural “gums” and root fibers.
It’s my hope that you are now equipped with enough knowledge of the calories, macronutrients, and the additives to make the best choice for your health needs.
Ingredients Listed Under “Notes”
Safe or Harmful? Natural and Artificial Additives, Preservatives, Dyes, & Fillers
Acesulfame potassium (Ace K, acesulfame K) is an artificial sweetener that is 200 times sweeter than table sugar. Since it leaves a bitter after taste, it generally is mixed with another artificial sweetener like sucralose (Splenda).
Controversial studies conducted in the 1970s and ’80s first indicated it was carcinogenic, but these studies were later ruled as being flawed. More recent studies in mice show a possible change in brain function when mice was given acesulfame potassium for 10 months.
Agar agar is also known as agar or kenten. It derives from a southeast Asian seaweed and is used as an all natural gelling agent for ice cream, yogurt, soups, etc.
In Asian cultures, it is used as a laxative because of its high fiber content and as an appetite suppressant because of the full feeling it causes. Agar agar should be taken with 8 ounces of water when used as a dietary supplement (not as a food additive) because it causes bulking in the colon which can lead to an obstruction.
Conclusion: Use with caution. Although I didn’t find any evidence of this being an issue when agar agar is used an additive, I would still be wary of possible GI issues when it is consumed.
Carmine is an “all natural” food coloring that is made from the crushed carcasses of a female insect (Dactylopius coccus). This bug is found in Central and South America and has been used as a pigment dye for cloth and a food coloring dating back to the time of the Aztecs. Some individuals may have allergic reactions to carmine–– hives and anaphylactic shock have been reported.
Conclusion: Safe for most people.
Carrageenan is a natural product derived from red seaweed that provides no nutritional value. It is added to foods to give a thicker consistency, to give lower fat foods and fuller taste, and to keep liquids from separating.
An article in Prevention magazine states,
Although derived from a natural source, carrageenan appears to be particularly destructive to the digestive system, triggering an immune response similar to that your body has when invaded by pathogens like Salmonella. The result: ‘Carrageenan predictably causes inflammation, which can lead to ulcerations and bleeding,’ explains veteran carrageenan researcher Joanne Tobacman, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois School of Medicine at Chicago. She says the food ingredient irritates by activating an immune response that dials up inflammation.”
Conclusion: Use with Caution.
Disodium phosphate is a food additive and preservative commonly found in cheaper, low quality food. It’s “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) from the FDA. However, a 2012 study found disodium phosphate to have the potential to cause calcification in blood vessels and organs, especially in renal failure patients, but also in normal healthy patients, which led to higher mortality. When farm animals were fed food with disodium phophate added in studies showed “accelerated age-related organ complications such as muscle and skin atrophy, the progression of chronic renal failure, and cardiovascular calcifications.”
Conclusion: Generally recognized as safe by the FDA but many researchers believe more conclusive studies need to be done before the FDA will remove it completely or require warning labels on food.
Guar Gum is an all natural product produced from the guar bean found in Pakistan and India. It’s used as a thickening agent and a stabilizer in a variety of food. It’s also added to low fat foods to replace fat.
Studies showed guar gum to reduce body weight and lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels in rats with similar results being noted in humans. Guar gum does cause gas so you might want to avoid it if you are prone to gut issues.
Conclusion: Safe but people with gut issues should avoid it.
Inulin (aka chicory root fiber or chickory root extract) is a plant based fiber used to add moisture to gluten free products, protein bars, cereals, etc. and is used to create a creamy texture in products like yogurt. It’s cheap to manufacture and is naturally sweet so it’s a popular go-to calorie free sweetener in food manufacturing.
Inulin is a soluble fiber which can’t be broken down and digested in the small intestine. It travels intact through the GI system until it reaches the large intestine (colon) where gut bacteria feeds off it. Inulin is known as a good prebiotic source because it’s highly fermentable which helps the good bacteria in the gut to thrive. However, this fermenting process also causes gas and bloating which can be painful in sensitive individuals.
Conclusion: Safe but individuals with gut issues should use it with caution.
Lactic acid esters of mono- and diglycerides are classified as emulsifiers and are used to combine ingredients that contain water with ingredients that contain fat.
Locust bean gum (aka carob bean gum) is made from the seeds of the carob tree.
After a two year study involving rats, locust bean gum was found to have similar cholesterol lowering properties as guar gum (listed above), along with the potential to cause gas in certain populations.
Conclusion: Safe but people with gut issues should avoid it.
Malic acid is a dicarboxylic acid which is found naturally in sour foods. This acid was first isolated from an apple in the late 1700s by a French chemist. Malic acid is used as a food flavoring in sour candies and potato chips and is also used in skin care products. Side effects include soreness in the mouth, skin rash, hives, and tightness of chest with excessive consumption.
Monk fruit extract (aka luo han guo) is a no calorie sweetener that is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Although monk fruit extract is a natural sweetener, it has to undergo processing in order for it to become a usable product. In ancient Chinese medicine, monk fruit was used to stop sugar cravings and to build the immune system. It is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA.
Conclusion: Safe but hasn’t undergone extensive testing.
According to CSPI, “The FDA requires that if a serving of a food would likely provide more than 15 grams of polydextrose, the label should advise consumers that ‘Sensitive individuals may experience a laxative effect from excessive consumption of this product.'”
Conclusion: Safe but should be limited in diet.
Potassium sorbate is a food preservative that prevents food from spoiling from mold, yeast, and bacteria, and it slows the changes in color, flavor, and texture to make them have a longer shelf life. Potassium sorbate is recognized as safe by the FDA; however, longterm use can cause hypersensitivity (itching of the mouth, throat, eyes, skin as well as nasal congestion, runny nose and abdominal pain occurring within 2 hours of consumption), migraines, and hyperkalemia (high levels of potassium in the blood).
Conclusion: Safe according to the CSPI.
Red #40 or Red Dye #40 is an artificial food dye that has been linked to cancer, hyperactivity in kids, and allergic reactions.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit watchdog group, says Red #40 has been known to cause cancer for years but the FDA has been slow to ban it– possibly due to big corporations like Coca-Cola, General Mills, and Nestle who use it in their products. Since 2007, the European Union has required companies to add warning labels (for hyperactivity) to products containing Red #40.
Conclusion: Avoid. Lobbyists for big food corporations probably play a big role in red#40 still being in our food.
Stevia leaf extract is a natural sweetener that has been isolated in the leaves of the yerba dulce shrub which originally could only be found in Brazil, Paraguay, and Arizona.
Stevia leaf extract is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. Since it takes such a small amount of the powdered stevia to sweeten food, stevia that is packaged as an individual serving size is usually mixed with a carrier so that the powdered stevia doesn’t get lost in the packet. For example, the brand name “Truvia” packets are mostly made up of erythritol (can cause allergic reactions and nausea) as the carrier. PureVia mostly composed of dextrose and cellulose powder, and SweetLeaf is mainly inulin.
While stevia leaf extract is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA, more extensive studies need to be performed. It is known to cause a drop in blood sugar so caution should be used in people sensitive to low blood sugar.
Sucralose is an artificial sweetener better known by its brand name “Splenda”. It’s a low calorie sweetener that is 600 times sweeter than table sugar.
Sucralose is made by replacing certain atoms in sugar with atoms of chlorine, which makes this artificial sweetener indigestible. It is then combined with digestible sweeteners like maltodextrin. Studies have shown Sucralose to be linked to altered microbe levels in the gut, altered glucose and insulin levels in the blood, and with strong links to cancer and leukemia.
Conclusion: Avoid. I remember when the name brand “Splenda” was added to ingredient lists instead of using its common name “sucralose”. I think since it is now listed as “sucralose” in ingredient lists it is easily “buried” and overlooked by the unaware consumer.
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