For the latest installment of our Surprising Stars series, let’s discuss yogurt, a food often associated with supporting good health. This fermented food is made when milk is heated, combined with bacteria (Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus) and left to sit for several hours at a warm temperature (110-115°F). The bacteria convert the natural sugar in milk (lactose) to lactic acid, which thickens the milk and produces yogurt’s tart flavor.
Yogurt is rich in protein and calcium and contains potassium. Some yogurts also contain live, active bacteria cultures. You can find this on their label. These cultures, also known as probiotics, are considered beneficial bacteria for the gut and can help maintain healthy digestive systems.
If you have ever looked at the dairy case in the supermarket, you know that there are a lot of options for yogurt. If you were to shop one of our client’s stores you might be surprised by the lack of Guiding Stars-earning yogurts. This is not to say that their assortment is less nutritious than other supermarkets, but rather that the sweeteners often added to yogurt have a negative effect on nutrient density. In fact, just 20% of yogurts earn Guiding Stars due in large part to added sugars.
Natural vs. Added Sugar
According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, Americans should keep their intake of added sugars to less than 10% of their total daily calories as part of a healthy diet. So, for a 2,000 daily calorie diet, no more than 200 calories should come from added sugars. That equals 12.5 teaspoons or 50 grams (g). Some fruited or sweetened yogurts can have over 20 g of total sugar in a 5 ounce (oz.) container. To give some reference, chocolate pudding cups have about 18 g of sugar, an average dark chocolate bar (54% cocoa) has 18 g of sugar, and a serving of chocolate ice cream has roughly 20 g of sugar.
Twenty grams of sugar is a lot, but how much of that sugar is naturally occurring vs. added? Yogurt contains lactose, which is a naturally occurring sugar. Pudding cups, chocolate bars, and ice cream contain mostly added sugar, and as added sugar is what we should be limiting, comparing yogurt to ice cream is not entirely apples to oranges. That being said, a 5 oz. serving of plain yogurt has about 5 g of natural sugar. If you are choosing a fruited yogurt with 20 g of total sugars, you’re getting 15 g of added sugar. That’s 30% of the recommended daily limit of added sugar (referencing an average 2,000 calorie diet). Worse, it’s a sneaky 30% of your sugar, as most folks think they are making a great choice choosing yogurt for breakfast instead of an obviously sugary cereal.
The FDA has a new food label requirement that should make the distinction between natural and added sugars much easier for consumers to understand. Manufacturers must declare added sugars separately from total sugars in the revised Nutrition Fats label. The compliance date was the start of 2020 for the larger brands we are most familiar with. Consumers will now know how much added sugar is contained in products that also contain natural sugars, like yogurt. Guiding Stars evaluates products and issues a debit based on the amount of added sugars declared on their label, so looking for yogurts that do earn Guiding Stars is a good, at-a-glance approach for finding yogurts that are lower in added sugars.
Read more about our algorithm in the Guiding Stars White Paper.
Whole Milk, Low-fat, or Nonfat?
Sugar is not the only differentiating nutrient in a better-fo- you yogurt. The Guiding Stars algorithm debits foods for containing saturated fat, which is present in whole milk yogurt. This aligns with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPlate recommendations to choose low-fat or non-fat yogurt. Most plain, low-fat and non-fat yogurts earn Guiding Stars.
Guiding Stars rates foods (including “baby yogurts”) intended for infant and toddlers using a separate algorithm that reflects their unique nutritional needs. There are no recommended daily fat intakes for children from birth to age two. Children in this age group are in a period of rapid growth and development that is characterized by high nutritional requirements, including fat requirements to support optimal development of their nervous system.
There is growing popularity and sales of plant-based yogurts made with soy, coconut, almond and cashew. These dairy alternatives provide options to those who cannot or chose not to consume dairy. By looking for the Guiding Stars, consumers can select a nutritious, plant-based yogurt.