Yogurt: Healthy food or candy in disguise?

Mention yogurt, and most people imagine a nutritious food that promotes health. What about yogurt with added sugar or chunks of chocolate cookies? Is this type of yogurt healthy?

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, yogurt sales in the United States increased by 113 percent since 2001. Part of the increase is due to the development of Greek-style yogurt, which is thicker, creamier, higher in protein and lower in carbohydrate than traditional yogurt. Bloomberg BusinessWeek notes that Greek yogurt accounts for 36 percent of the $6.5 billion in total U.S. yogurt sales. In its most basic form, yogurt is simply fermented milk, first made in the Middle East around 5,000 BC. Yogurt became popular in the United States in the 1960s as an organic health food, but didn't become a household staple until 20 years later with the development of sweetened, flavored yogurt.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend dairy products including yogurt to provide three of the top four nutrients often missing in our diet: calcium, potassium, and Vitamin D. These nutrients are especially important during childhood and adolescence, when our body is building bone and increasing bone mass and density. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using full-fat milk and yogurt until your child is 2 years old to promote healthy brain development. After age 2, fat-free dairy products provide health benefits without saturated fat and cholesterol that can lead to heart disease.

Yogurt can be part of a healthy breakfast when served with fruit and whole grain cereal. Or use yogurt as the base for smoothies blended with fresh or frozen fruit. Top baked potatoes with plain yogurt instead of sour cream, or mix dry salad dressing packets with plain yogurt for a nutrient-dense topping Yet the sheer number and variety of yogurt in today's grocery store is mind-boggling, and new products are added almost monthly. Use these 5 tips to choose the healthiest yogurt for your children:

Offer whole milk yogurt to children under 2 years old; after age 2 switch to fat-free yogurt.

Choose plain yogurt and add your own flavorings such as fruit, vanilla, and cinnamon. Plain yogurt contains no added sweeteners, flavorings, or colorings.

Look at the list of ingredients, listed in descending order by weight. Milk should be the first ingredient in yogurt, not sugar or high fructose corn syrup. All yogurt naturally contains sugar from the lactose in milk; read the ingredients list to discover the source of the sugar.

Avoid any yogurt that is a bright, neon color not found in nature. Instead of exposing your children to artificial food colors, mix yogurt with fresh or frozen fruit for bright, healthy colors.

Skip the yogurt with sprinkles, cookie crumbles or any other topping routinely found in ice cream shops. These additions contain sugar, sodium and fat without any nutritional benefits.

Lynn Grieger, RD, CDE, cPT is a health, food and fitness coach in Manchester and online at www.LynnGrieger.com. She first ate yogurt as an exchange student in Germany and taught her children to happily enjoy plain yogurt.


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