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The culture wars: finding the best yogurts.

The best retailers talk to their customers and can tell a story," says Cathleen Toomey, vice president for communications at Stonyfield Farm, according to the trade publication Progressive Grocer

Her company prints messages on yogurt lids, sends out an electronic newsletter, and maintains daily Web logs (blogs) on health, organic farming, and other topics. Yoplait and Dannon publish e-newsletters with diet tips. Dannon prints recipes under the lids of some of its tubs. And most yogurt labels are plastered with claims about burning fat, lowering cholesterol, boosting calcium, and more.

All that communication seems to be paying off. Despite the low-carb craze, yogurt sales reached an all-time high of nearly $3 billion in 2004.

The question is: which yogurt stories are fact, which are fluff, and which are fantasy?

We made our way through the yogurt aisle, examining the major brands and their claims. The bottom line: you can find yogurts that supply calcium, potassium, protein, and even vitamin D without a great cost to your calorie or saturated-fat budget. What else yogurt can do is iffier.

Heart Smarts

"Helps Lower Cholesterol," says the banner on Yoplait Healthy Heart.

The small print carries much the same message, but with the government's signature eloquence: "Plant sterols eaten twice a day with meals for 0.8 g daily total, may reduce heart disease risk in a diet low in sat. fat & cholesterol. Yoplait Healthy Heart has 0.4 g per 6 oz."

Is this a valid claim, or just another three-studies-found something-and-two-didn't claim like "burn more fat"?

It's a keeper. The Food and Drug Administration approved the health claim for plant sterols after reviewing dozens of studies. Sterols are safe plant compounds that occur naturally in small amounts in beans, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Larger amounts are now added to some yogurts, margarines, and orange juices. Eat enough plant sterols and your blood cholesterol should drop by about 10 percent.


Burn More Fat (maybe)

"Burn More Fat," most Yoplait labels proudly announce. "Recent research shows that dairy foods, like Yoplait, may help you burn more fat and lose more weight than cutting calories alone." Similarly, Dannon Light 'n Fit and Light 'n Fit Creamy labels encourage eaters to "Slim Down with Yogurt." Both brands recommend at least three servings of dairy a day in a "reduced-calorie diet."

Is yogurt a magic fat burner? The evidence backing weight-loss claims for yogurt (and milk and cheese) comes largely from three studies published by Michael Zemel, a researcher who holds a patent on the claim that dairy aids weight loss (see "Milking the Data," p. 9).

The studies were small--combine the three and a total of just 46 overweight people on lower-calorie diets ate yogurt or other dairy foods. What's more, two recent studies--from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide in Australia--found no difference in weight loss when overweight people on lower-calorie diets added three daily servings of dairy.

Three small, already-contradicted studies aren't exactly an airtight case for yogurt as fat burner. And General Mills slaps the claim not just on its 100-calorie Yoplait Light line, which Zemel used in one of his studies, but on Yoplait Original and Yoplait Thick & Creamy, which have nearly twice as many calories.


A Dannon a Day?

Dannon la Creme Rich & Creamy with Chocolate Pieces "will satisfy your sweet cravings while giving you all the goodness of yogurt," explains the label. "And with 48% less saturated fat than regular ice creams, it's one more reason to make la Creme your everyday indulgence."

Half a cup of la Creme--that's a quarter of a one-pint container--does have less saturated fat than the same amount of ice cream. But it has no fewer calories.

What's more, la Creme eaters might finish off a full cup (8 oz.), which is a more-typical serving of yogurt. Now you're talking 330 calories and 6 grams of sat fat. Those are two good reasons not to make la Creme your everyday indulgence. So much for the goodness of yogurt.



Soy yogurts taste more dairy-like than they used to, but they're low in calcium if--like Trader Joe's and Whole Soy & Co.--they're not fortified. The soys are also not as rich in B-vitamins (like B-12 and riboflavin) as milk yogurts. And most are lower in potassium, a nutrient that may prevent bone loss, kidney stones, and high blood pressure (see Dec. 2004, p. 8).

A 6 oz. flavored dairy yogurt has around 350 milligrams of potassium (plain has around 450 mg). While that's less than 10 percent of a day's worth (experts recommend 4,700 mg), it's more than you'll find in most soy yogurts (Silk and Whole Soy, for example, sit at around 200 mg). Only Nancy's rivals what you'll get from dairy yogurt.

On the upside, the protein in soy yogurts may help lower cholesterol, though only three of the five brands we found (Stonyfield Farm O'Soy, Whole Soy & Co., and Trader Joe's) have enough soy protein--at least 6 grams per serving--to make a government-approved health claim.


All the Fage

If you prefer your yogurt unsweetened, any brand's plain will do. But if you want a real treat, look for Fage Total 0% Authentic Greek Yogurt, which is sold at gourmet grocers like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. (The 0% refers to fat, not authenticity.)

It's strained to remove the liquidy whey, which gives it a rich creaminess. That also removes enough calcium to disqualify it for a Best Bite. But don't let that stop you from using it as a substitute for saturated-fat-laden sour cream.

Mix some Fage with a touch of olive oil to create a dip for veggies or pita bread, add a bit of honey to make a dessert topping, or serve it instead of sour cream on baked potatoes or quesadillas.


Fiber in Funny Places

Yogurt, like other milk products, is fiber-free. But Dannon adds maltodextrin to its Light 'n Fit with Fiber and Stonyfield Farm adds inulin to all of its yogurts. Maltodextrin comes from corn starch. Inulin is extracted from chicory root.

It's not clear whether "isolated" fibers like maltodextrin and inulin do as much for your risk of heart disease, diabetes, diverticulosis, and constipation as the intact fiber in whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. But at least the isolateds are safe.

Stonyfield claims that "studies have shown that 8 g per day of inulin (a natural dietary fiber) increases calcium absorption." "Studies"? Make that one decent-sized study on about 60 adolescent girls who were getting too little calcium. Inulin did boost calcium absorption, but only from 32 to 38 percent.

And with only a few other small studies on inulin and calcium--one of which found no benefit--it's just too early to slap a claim on the label. Unfortunately, consumers can't tell the difference between claims that are based on cozens of studies and those based on just one or two.



Here's what to check on your yogurt label.

[check] Saturated fat. If a 6 oz. yogurt has more than 11/2 grams of saturated fat, leave it in the dairy case. That may not seem like much, but the daily limit (20 grams) is easy to reach.

[check] Calories. You can save 50 to 70 calories in a 6 oz. yogurt by switching from full-fat to low-fat or fat-free. And you can save about as much by moving from sugar- or fruit-sweetened yogurt (150 to 200 calories) to plain or "light" (80 to 100 calories).

[check] Artificial sweeteners, Splenda (sucralose) is the safest artificial sweetener. Avoid aspartame (NutraSweet), which caused cancers in a recent animal study (see Quick Studies. p. 8), and acesulfame potassium, which hasn't been adequately tested.

[check] Calcium. A 6 oz. yogurt should have at least 20 percent of a day's calcium. Most soy yogurts have less.

[check] Vitamin D. If you're older than 50 and don't get much sun exposure, you may need more than the 400 IU you'll get from just about any multivitamin. Vitamin D is added to Yoplait and Blue Bunny yogurts, as well as to all Dannon Light 'n Fits except Creamy and Carb Control. Check the label.

[check] Potassium. Labels don't have to list potassium. If yours does, look for at least 300 mg in a 6 oz. yogurt.

[check] Active cultures. Yogurt's "friendly" bacteria live and active cultures like L. bulgaricus and/or S. thermophilus--appear to help people digest lactose (the naturally occurring sugar in milk). They may also prevent the diarrhea that's caused by taking some antibiotics. But the evidence is still scanty that yogurt can boost the immune system or prevent colon cancer, heart disease. ulcers, and other illnesses.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Center for Science in the Public Interest
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Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Liebman, Bonnie
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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