Navigating the dairy aisle for a nutritious yogurt can be overwhelming. There's no shortage of options (hi, Greek and Icelandic skyr yogurt), and then there's a variety of flavors, milkfat options and add-ins, too.
If you're shopping with your gut health in mind, all of this can add another layer of confusion. Yogurt is a solid source of probiotics as it's made by fermenting milk with bacteria. At the very least, for a food to qualify as yogurt, it needs to contain two strains of probiotics — Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus — according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Additional strains can be added but these two must always be present.
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These two probiotic strains have been linked to improved lactose digestion and a reduced risk of both diarrhea and constipation, per the World Gastroenterology Organization. The beneficial bacteria are also linked to helping conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel disease (IBD).
Knowing these two strains must be included in your yogurt helps level the playing field some, but significant differences still remain. Some yogurts have been heat-treated after the fermentation process, killing off the beneficial live cultures. And in addition to the types of probiotics present, the quantity of these strains is important too, although most yogurt brands don't provide a count on their packaging.
So next time you're shopping for a tub, keep these unhealthy yogurt ingredients and buying mistakes in mind.
1. Always Picking Yogurt With Sugar Alternatives
Some yogurts are marketed as a "diet food" with claims like "light" or "sugar-free." This is usually an indication that there are sugar alternatives in your yogurt.
Yes, limiting the amount of added sugar in our diets is important, but choosing products with sugar alternatives might not be the answer, especially when it comes to your gut health.
Early research shows that non-nutritive sweeteners like sucralose and saccharin alter our gut microbiota — and not in a good way, as explained in a January 2019 article in Advances in Nutrition. The same goes for stevia.
This research is preliminary, and we still aren't sure about how long-term intake of alternative sweeteners affects our gut health. That doesn't mean you have to avoid it altogether — just try to limit how often you enjoy yogurt with alt sweeteners. Mix it up with a lower-sugar yogurt that's lightly sweetened with sugar, honey or even fruit. Plain yogurt is another safe bet.
2. Choosing Yogurt With No or Limited Live and Active Cultures
Not all brands divulge the number of probiotics, which is measured in CFUs (colony-forming units), in their yogurts. When this is the case, we can't be certain of how much good bacteria we're actually adding to our gut.
Also, although less common, some yogurts on the market are void of any beneficial bacteria at all. They've either been heat-treated post-fermentation, which means the live and active cultures have been killed off, or they may never have been added in the first place (you might get this with non-dairy yogurt brands).
When perusing the yogurt aisle, look for the Live & Active Cultures seal, which ensures there are at least 100 million cultures per gram of yogurt.
3. Opting for Yogurt That's High in Sugar
While some yogurts contain zero added sugar, other brands can pack upwards of 20 grams of added sugar per serving. Limiting added sugar content is important for our overall health, and that's why the American Heart Association recommends that no more than 10 percent of your total calories should come from added sugar — although the less, the better.
It is worth noting that added sugar's effect on our gut health is still to be determined. Added sugars are typically quickly absorbed, so they don't actually make their way down to the farther end of our GI tract where our microbes live, per Food Insight. Also, much of the research in this area has been observational, making it impossible to draw a conclusion of cause and effect.
Still, limiting your added sugar intake is a smart play for your general health. When buying yogurt, always check for the amount of added sugar on the nutrition facts label before buying. If you're opting for flavored, choose one with 7 grams of added sugar or less — the lower, the better for weight loss and overall health.
Your best bet is to choose a plain or unsweetened yogurt, which is typically free of added sugars, and then add your own chopped fresh or dried fruit for sweetness.
- Food and Drug Administration: "CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21"
- World Gastroenterology Organization Global Guidelines: "Probiotics and Prebiotics"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Effects of Sweeteners on the Gut Microbiota: A Review of Experimental Studies and Clinical Trials"
- International Dairy Foods Association: "Live & Active Cultures Seal"
- American Heart Association: "Added Sugars"
- Food Insight: "Gut Check: Sugars and the Gut Microbiome"