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Food and Drink

Yogurt explosion

More than ever, this former hippie food is on everybody’s table (and maybe even for dinner)

Additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

BRATTLEBORO—Most of us beyond the age of 30 remember when yogurt was something only health-food nuts, obsessive dieters, and withered old Russians ate.

Most grocery stores’ yogurt selections were pretty limited, and seemed almost perfunctory. You’d have Yoplait, Dannon, and usually the store’s own brand, in fairly predictable fruit-on-the-bottom flavors, and always low-fat. Rarely would you see plain or full-fat yogurt unless you went to the health-food store.

And that seemed fine for most of non-hippie America.

But over the years, especially in the past decade or so, the yogurt section has taken over the dairy aisle, nudging the cottage cheese into the dark, dusty corner where the fluorescent lightbulbs barely blink alive.

The numbers are consistent with the merchandising: Between 1991, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service began reporting the data, and 2012, production of yogurt in this country has more than quadrupled.

On a recent Sunday night in the café at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, cashier Lee Raymond was on break eating dinner: a cup of plain Greek yogurt.

“There’s a lot of protein, and it’s a good probiotic,” said Raymond, who admitted the dinner choice was unusual for her, but “it’s something I would have for breakfast or a snack.” She has been eating the stuff for years.

But purely for health reasons and convenience.

“I like to eat it fast,” Raymond said. “Yogurt gags me.”

Good bacteria

Though it can also be made with dairy-free variants made from soy, nuts, and coconut, yogurt is by and large a fermented dairy product. Beneficial bacteria (probiotics) — most commonly, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus (L. d. bulgaricus) and Streptococcus thermophilus (S. thermophilus) — are added to milk to convert the sugars within (lactose) to lactic acid.

This fermentation process thickens the milk, giving it the texture of thin custard; it also makes yogurt easier to digest than unfermented dairy products, such as liquid milk, thus providing relief and nutrition to individuals with lactose intolerance.

People with lactose intolerance aren’t the only ones interested in fermented foods.

The last few years have seen a sort of renaissance for fermented foods, both for food purists and traditionalists (fermentation is one of humankind’s original methods for preserving food), as well as those concerned with probiotics, and this upsurge has only added to yogurt’s popularity.

Fermentation has been touted as an antidote to a society that is suffering health effects from the overreliance on antibiotics, which has created bacteria resistant to most of these medications. Even for those who don’t abuse antibiotics, some minor complications can occur, such as digestion issues and yeast infections, because beneficial bacteria is removed along with the pathogenic bacteria when we take antibiotics.

Another noticeable food trend is the return to traditional foods, or what some consider whole (or minimally or unprocessed) foods. With more attention being brought to health issues caused or exacerbated by the extra salts, sugars, artificial, or unnecessary ingredients in processed foods, whole foods are finding their way into more grocery baskets.

Yogurt is minimally processed. Yogurt is made from milk, considered one of the most wholesome foods available to us. You can even make yogurt at home (see page C4).

The Greek yogurt phenomenon

Greek-style yogurt — which until recently was all but unknown to most Americans — is simply yogurt that’s been strained through a filter. The straining removes quite a bit of the whey (the liquid), leaving a yogurt much thicker than that of non-strained yogurts — yogurt so thick that you can pretty much stand a spoon up in it.

The straining also slightly changes the flavor. Regular yogurt is acidic; so is Greek yogurt, but the flavor is brighter and richer.

It takes much more milk to make Greek yogurt. Because of the straining of the whey, which leaves a higher percentage of solids per ounce than one finds in regular yogurt, Greek yogurt has more protein per ounce than regular yogurt.

These characteristics — texture, flavor, and protein content — might explain why Greek yogurt has grown from 1 percent of yogurt sales in 2007 to 35 percent in 2013, according to a market research report by Packaged Facts.

It seems like every time one looks in the dairy case, a new brand of Greek yogurt appears. Commonwealth Dairy in Brattleboro, which opened in 2010 and completed a $12 million expansion in 2013, makes Greek yogurt, a boon for regional dairy farmers.

In an effort to cut costs, some producers add cheap thickeners like carrageenan, a natural thickener made from seaweed, instead of straining the yogurt. Yogurt thickened with non-traditional additives like carrageenan can have an unpleasantly gummy texture.

High protein, with beneficial bacteria

Yogurt’s blitz into middle America’s grocery carts can be explained by taking a comprehensive look at current food trends, including nutritional and health concerns.

The Atkins diet craze of the early 2000s and the current “gluten-free” bandwagon have successfully drawn attention to the fact that most of us are eating way too many simple carbohydrates — read “sugar” — especially if most of the food we eat is processed, and our typical American food habits don’t provide us with enough high-quality protein.

Yogurt is high in protein — which provides vegetarians a source of protein not made of meat — as well as calcium and some essential vitamins. If eaten plain, has no refined sugar.

The carbohydrates that are in yogurt are from lactose (milk sugar), and according to one study, up to two thirds of the sugars are converted into lactic acid by the fermentation process.

Add to that our culture’s latter-day fear of fat — being it or eating it — and yogurt is right on cue. Most yogurt sold in grocery stores is either low-fat or non-fat, but the protein content is still high.

Finally, yogurt is essentially a convenience food. It needs no cooking or preparation other than the requirement that one have opposable thumbs, and Americans’ reliance on ready-to-eat foods shows no signs of decreasing.

Because yogurt is convenient and healthy, it’s marketed toward busy parents as an ideal snack for children, especially as a part of school lunches.

But though they remain good sources of calcium and vitamin D, many of these products — with no fruit or heavily sweetened with fruit concentrates — are simply new ways to deliver massive amounts of sugar into children’s bodies.

Hippie food, indeed.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #244 (Wednesday, March 5, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

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