Health Food Or Sweet Dessert?
Theoretically, yogurt is a health food. The key word: theoretically.Many people first heard about yogurt when stories of robust, rugged centenarians living high up in the mountains of Bulgaria attributed their longevity to their yogurt-heavy diet. Yogurt started showing up in grocery stores in the US and soon became a dietary staple of the health-conscious crowd. The problem is that most commercially available yogurts today contain more sugar than live bacterial cultures. And there's the dairy debate. Is this the same food that the rugged mountaineers were eating?
BACTERIA IS THE KEY
To get to the bottom of the yogurt debate, I talked to naturopathic physician Sonja Pettersen. She explained that the health effects of yogurt are completely dependent on the presence of live bacteria. "Why did those people in Bulgaria have such great longevity?" she asked rhetorically. "Why didn't they have degenerative diseases? It turns out that the yogurt they were eating was very rich in a particular bacteria called Lactobacillus bulgaricus. And L. bulgaricus has antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties as well as many other health benefits." Bulgaricus is a species of the genus of bacteria called Lactobacillus, which in turn is part of a larger group known as probiotics. "Your gut is populated by a huge number of microbes," Dr. Pettersen explained, "some of them are "good" -- such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. bulgaricus, L. bifodobacteria -- and some of them not so good -- such as Staphylococcus aureus. We all have both good and bad bacteria in our gut, but it's a turf issue. You need to keep the good ones in the majority and the bad ones at a minimum. The live cultures in real yogurt help do that and provide many health benefits." Dr. Pettersen believes everyone should supplement with probiotics -- the good bacteria that live in the gut -- unless they're eating plenty of "real" yogurt with live cultures. "By maintaining good gut flora, you'll prevent all kinds of different diseases," she told me. "Especially chronic degenerative diseases." Why? Because the end result of a more balanced gut flora is decreased inflammation, which is a central feature of so many degenerative diseases including heart disease. Probiotics -- like the bulgaris found in the yogurt in Bulgaria -- help increase natural killer cells (a powerful immune system weapon). They increase antibodies when we have infections and have actual antibiotic properties of their own. They improve digestion. They have anticancer properties. And if this weren't enough, they can increase good cholesterol while decreasing the bad kind. Probiotics also may have a positive effect on blood sugar. An article in the August 2005 Journal of the American College of Nutrition reported that daily ingestion of tablets containing powdered -- in other words, yogurt -- fermented milk (yogurt) with Lactobacillus reduced elevated blood pressure in mildly hypertensive patients without any adverse side effects.
LOOK FOR "LIVE AND ACTIVE CULTURES"
Originally, yogurt was milk that was left out to sour. Real yogurt is a fermented food, allowed to develop its own bacteria just like sauerkraut or any other fermented food. The National Yogurt Association (NYA) has developed a "Live and Active Cultures" (LAC) seal for the yogurt label to identify yogurt that contains significant levels of live and active cultures. Don't be fooled by the words "made with active cultures." All yogurts are made with live cultures, but no live cultures survive heattreatment. "The product has to actually contain live cultures at the time of consumption," Dr. Pettersen said. Some yogurt products may have live cultures but not carry the LAC seal. To determine whether the yogurt you buy contains living bacteria check the labels for the words "contains active yogurt cultures," or "living yogurt cultures". Three brands that contain live cultures are Stonyfield Farm, Dannon (plain) and Nancy's (http://www.nancysyogurt.com/).
The NYA has been urging the FDA not to allow products that do not contain live and active cultures to be called "yogurt". The LAC label assures consumers that the healthful properties of the organisms are present at the time they eat the yogurt, not just at the time of manufacturing. PLAIN IS BEST
The best nutritional deal is plain yogurt, which has only two ingredients -- live cultures and milk (whole milk, low-fat or skim). In some highly sweetened containers of yogurt, you're getting more calories in the sweetener than you are in the yogurt. Be sure to read the protein and sugar values on the nutrition panel. The higher the protein and the lower the sugar content, the more nutritional value you will get from it.
A NOTE FOR DAIRY AVOIDERS
For people who avoid cow's milk, there are also goat's milk yogurt and soy yogurt options. Goat's milk yogurt tends to be less allergenic than cow's milk yogurt. You still need to check for the live cultures in the product ,however. Soy and goat's milk yogurt are generally available at health-food and whole foods markets. What about the commercial kind of yogurt we see commonly on supermarket shelves? The kind with the fruit on the bottom that tastes so delicious? "A sweet treat masquerading as something healthy," Dr. Pettersen told me. As for frozen yogurt, "It's delicious, but it has absolutely no relation to yogurt's health benefits."