What’s So Great About Yogurt?

What’s So Great About Yogurt?

I feel like I should tell you right up front, so you don’t think I lured you here under false pretences, this post really should be called something like “Is Yogurt Really so Good?” Or maybe “Yogurt…WTF?!” That’s because despite the FDA and Health Canada encouraging regular intake of dairy products and despite all the health claims from stronger bones to better ahem, regularity, the jury is surprisingly out on just whether or not yogurt, in fact all dairy, is really the nutrition star we once thought.

A quick check of the dairy shelves groaning with choices and you’ll see yogurt is definitely big business. There are 20+ brands at the grocery store I frequent with a dizzying array of variations; fruit mixed in or on the bottom, sweetened with sugar or aspartame, Splenda or hard core plain. Organic yogurt, Greek yogurt, yogurt with added probiotics, prebiotics, grains, granola, even candy and chocolate chips.

So, we’ll start with the potentially good news. I spoke to Denis Roy, PhD, Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at Laval University. According to Roy, yogurt is an “excellent source of high-quality protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, and the B vitamins”.  And while some estimates put the number of people worldwide who can’t properly digest dairy as high as 75%, Roy says yogurt has “health benefits for certain gastrointestinal conditions such as lactose intolerance. For many lactose-intolerant people, fermented milk products such as yogurt are better accepted than are unfermented. The European Food Safety Authority’s Panel concluded that a cause and effect relationship has been established between the consumption of live yogurt cultures and improved lactose digestion.” And according to Cathy Hayashi and Sarah Dobec, nutritionists at the Big Carrot in Toronto, “studies have shown that immune response is enhanced, protecting against infections such as pneumonia, yeast infections, viruses and parasites by strengthening the white blood cells. This may also help to prevent the development of some types of cancer.” They go on to say “there have been links found between increased yogurt consumption and the reduction of inflammation and dangerous belly fat as well as protection against ulcers and high LDL cholesterol.”

Ok, so with such a glowing report what could possibly be the down side? Dr. Walter Willet says dairy is not all it’s cracked up to be. And while we may be able to pooh pooh the ramblings of that wackadoo friend who says she just feels more at one with the universe when she avoids dairy (no offence, to many people I am that friend), it’s a little harder to ignore Dr Willet, what with him being an MD, PhD and Head of the Harvard School of Public Health. According to his impressively extensive research and findings from the gold standard Nurses Health Study, he says milk products do not strengthen bones or reduce the incidence of fractures. In fact, in countries with lower milk intake people have stronger bones and milk may actually increase the risk of fracture by up to 50%. While calcium has protective properties, the calcium in milk products seems to fall short and other sources (dark leafy greens and almonds for example) offer bone benefits without the risks.

And those risks are no joke. According to Dr Willet, a higher intake of both calcium and dairy products may increase a man’s risk of prostate cancer by 30-50%. Also, dairy consumption increases the body’s level of a compound called ‘insulin-like growth factor-1’ (IGF-1), a known cancer promoter. His research also found that “calcium supplements but not dairy products may reduce the risk of colon cancer.”

Take a deep breath and assess our risk vs. benefit here. As with all things nutrition, you can find experts on both sides of this issue and dairy may well fall into the jury’s still out category. Unless your kids are slamming yogurt back like little junkies on a bender it may well fit into a healthy diet. And even Dr. Willet doesn’t say dairy is the devil. In his revised take on the Food Pyramid dairy has simply shift to the tip top, smallest section meaning it’s one of the foods we should eat sparingly. In the groundbreaking book The China Study, the authors make the same claim about dairy and indeed all animal fats but they do recognize that it’s a complex issue. In those cultures, where cancer and bone fractures are low, is it solely due to their minimal intake of dairy or their increased intake of veggies and fish or some combination of many complementary lifestyle factors?

Vegans love to trot out the factoid that humans are the only species that drinks milk beyond infancy and the only one that drinks the milk of other species. It’s hard to say if that argument is enough to give it up entirely. After all, there are lots of things we humans do that other species don’t–like bowling. Are we just more evolved, and, therefore smarter than the average bear? Or,  if left to its own devices, would nature wean us off dairy too?

So if I haven’t completely terrorized you and you’re still going to enjoy the known benefits of yogurt (in moderation of course), here are some tips from The Big Carrot’s Cathy Hayashi and Sarah Dobec:

When shopping for yogurts, look for unsweetened, preferably organic, with live (active) bacteria.  Even the higher fat yogurts have benefits as fat can help improve the digestion of the yogurt and absorption of minerals so try yogurts with varied fat content. To avoid the high sugar content and artificial sweeteners in many yogurts reach for the plain and sweeten with honey or fruits.

Yogurt drinks often contain excessive amounts of artificial flavourings, colouring and sweeteners all of which are not desirable for children as they are known to aggravate behavioural issues.  Try making smoothies.  Any fruits and liquids can be added and if you let children choose their own ingredients and participate in the process they are often more willing to try new things.

Go Greek! Greek yogurts boast lower sodium and higher protein content (as much as double that of regular yogurt). They’re naturally creamier and thicker.

Buy Organic. Unlike in the US, our milk products legally cannot contain BGH but conventional milk can contain antibiotics. And we have to keep in mind that some of our yogurt products are imported from the US.

Don’t Panic! There is much conflicting information about dairy products and their effect on our health. As with any food, we need to eat it in moderation and choose organic sources whenever possible. A person can be perfectly healthy without dairy products in their diet, but remember it can be part of a healthy diet.

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  1. Jenn
    May 17, 09:35 Reply

    Love this. I did spend this morning applauding my family for sitting down to a breakfast of yogurt and granola, but I appreciate this informative article. It’s great to be well informed of the key ingredients to look out for, to avoid and to embrace. Great work!

  2. Katrina
    May 17, 10:40 Reply

    Great article! Canada also has strict guidelines regarding antibiotics in milk. All milk is tested and dairy farmers are fined if the amount is over the allowable level.

  3. Gwen
    May 17, 22:29 Reply

    excellent post. I am happy to say that I was already aware of most of the information written here (even being from the U.S. 😉 I am eager to look further into the things I wasn’t aware of such as the lack of calcium that milk touts. I would like to add that I am surprised you did not mention kefir or goat’s milk in this post as both of those are excellent options to cow’s milk and better than supplements IMHO.
    I am very excited to have found your site and to follow and read through your posts! {found you on babble.com Top Mom blogger where I am also}
    Have a great day!

    • Ceri Marsh
      May 18, 14:37 Reply

      Hi Gwen,
      We love your site, too! You have so many great ideas and recipes. Love that you weave in craft projects – that’s something we’d like to include eventually. When we find those extra few hours in the day…. You’re right this post was completely comprehensive but we’ll definitely come back to it again. My husband is a big kefir fan and one of my kids has lactose issues – so it’s something we’ll keep addressing as we find other great options. Thanks so much for getting in touch!

  4. Gwen
    May 17, 22:30 Reply

    oops, I ment alternatives, not options. 😉

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