Gut Check: Are All Yogurts Created Equal?
People have been eating yogurt for thousands of years, since ancient cultures learned how to ferment milk for the sake of preservation. Indian ayurvedic scripts from around 6,000 B.C. mention the health benefits of yogurt. Nowadays, instead of carrying milk in animal skins in order to create an environment that’s conducive to bacterial grow, we can shop for any number of yogurt options at the grocery store — from plain whole milk yogurt, to creamy Greek-style, tangy kefir, and even dairy-free nut and oat-gurts.
Jessica Sylvester, RD, founder of FL Nutrition Group and a media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says all yogurts can have a place in your diet, whether it’s your daily breakfast or a treat for dessert. Choosing what yogurt to eat when requires considering your own body’s needs.
“Any health condition you have should direct your food choices,” says Sylvester. “For instance, if you have cardiovascular disease, you shouldn’t have whole fat yogurt.”
But what about when it comes to your gut health? Yogurt is touted for containing probiotics, which are good for your gut. So when it comes to your gut health, is no-sugar-added plain Greek yogurt the same as caramel flavored whole milk yogurt with candy crunch or vanilla cashew-gurt?
What’s the Deal With Probiotics?
To dig into the details of how different types of yogurt benefit the gut, we need to talk about probiotics. Probiotics are naturally occurring good bacteria and yeasts that live in your body that keep your body in balance, as noted by Cleveland Clinic. Naturally occurring probiotics found in certain foods have been boosting gut health long before supplements became trendy.
Liping Zhao, PhD, professor of applied microbiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, recommends a healthy dose of skepticism when looking at yogurt. Branding a product as healthy and full of probiotics is one thing — but transparency is another. It’s also worth noting that researchers still don’t know for sure if probiotics are helpful.
“Don’t assume that just because it says ‘probiotic’ that it’s beneficial to your health — you still need evidence,” says Dr. Zhao.
He says that under the ingredients on the food label, yogurt should list the names of the specific live probiotic cultures it contains. Ideally, a yogurt label should list at least 3 types of probiotics, which includes the genus name, the species name, and the strain name. For example, S. Thermophilus, L. Bulgaricus, L. Acidophilus, or L. Casei are common probiotics in yogurt. With that information, it’s possible to look up research behind that specific strain if you want to to know more.
Yogurt provides probiotics — as well as more protein and calcium than milk — but your body needs more nutrients to fully reap the benefits yogurt has to offer.
In order to make probiotics by eating foods like yogurt, your body also needs prebiotics, which are anything that feeds or develops the microbiome. Mindy Haar, PhD, RDN, assistant dean at New York Institute of Technology’s School of Health Professions in Old Westbury, says the building blocks of probiotics are prebiotics, which are found in high fiber foods like whole grains. Eating a diet that’s high in fiber, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which all contain prebiotics allows the gut to make probiotics.
Choosing a Gut Healthy Yogurt at the Supermarket
So, what kinds of yogurts are the healthiest for your gut? Do things like sugar content, fat content, or other ingredients matter? Sylvester and Dr. Haar offer guidance below.
Sugar vs. Sugar-Free
Sugar is known for having pro-inflammatory effects, and a growing amount of research suggests that excessive sugar is bad for the microbiome.
Haar says even if you eat yogurts with added sugars — even candy or cookie toppings — that you’ll still get the potential benefits of probiotics, even if they’re a less healthy choice holistically.
However, Haar still recommends starting with plain yogurt and adding a little sugar or fruit yourself, if you don’t like the taste of unsweetened yogurt. If you look at the “added sugar” line on a food label and note the amount, 20 grams is about 5 teaspoons of sugar. Even if you add a teaspoon of sugar or honey to plain yogurt, it will still be less than the amount added to flavored yogurts.
Sylvester adds that our taste buds can adapt, so over time, you might crave less added sugar. Crushed up fresh fruit is another way to add natural sweetness to yogurt.
Full-Fat vs. Low-Fat
The vitamin D in yogurt is fat-soluble, meaning it needs a level of fat content in order for your body to absorb it, as noted by The Nutrition Source at Harvard. Sylvester recommends eating yogurt that has some level of fat in it to get the full benefits of the vitamin D you’re consuming.
Nondairy vs. Dairy
Research shows that the probiotics in yogurt produce the enzyme lactase, which helps break down lactose. This is why some lactose intolerant people can enjoy yogurt without discomfort!
However, if your body can’t tolerate dairy-based yogurt or you are vegan, nut, soy, and oat based yogurts might be a better choice. To see if there are probiotics, check the label. According to Today’s Dietitian, common probiotic strains in nondairy yogurts may include Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and Bifidobacterium bifidus.
If you can’t find a yogurt that’s your jam, other fermented foods, like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, or kombucha also have probiotics that can boost your gut health.
“I don’t think people realize how interconnected all our body systems are,” says Sylvester. “A healthy gut is a healthy body.”