Let's Talk About Yogurt

Yogurt is popular stuff, with a quasi-mystical reputation. When I was a kid, yogurt was unfamiliar to most Americans. Dannon opened up the market with ads showing ancient-but-healthy-looking Russian folks, stating that they ate yogurt, and implying that it was the secret of their longevity. I doubt those Russians were eating sweetened, flavored yogurt little different from pudding, but it sure did work for the Dannon company. Now, of course, we have Jamie Lee Curtis all over television, telling us how Activia will "regulate your digestive tract," which appears to be code for "make you poop." Should we all be scarfing the stuff down?

Yogurt is a good source of protein, with 8 grams per cup. It's also a good source of calcium, though it's important to realize that calcium is only absorbed in the presence of fat. If you eat fat-free yogurt all by itself, without some other source of fat, you'll derive little benefit from the calcium. You'll also miss out on the vitamin A in butterfat.

But what about the carbs? It should go without saying that low carbers must avoid all yogurts with added sugar, which eliminates the vast majority of the flavored yogurts on the market. But what about plain yogurt? The label on plain yogurt states that it has 12 grams of carbohydrate per cup! That's most of a day's ration for a lot of low carbers. Can we actually eat yogurt?

Yes, we can, but it's a little complex.

The bacteria that turn milk into yogurt also transform a lot of the lactose -- milk sugar -- into lactic acid; this is why yogurt has a tangy flavor. However, how much of the lactose is converted to lactic acid depends on how long the yogurt is allowed to ferment -- the longer, the less lactose. Indeed, yogurt you bought a week ago will have a little less carb than yogurt you bought today, because even at refrigerator temperatures the bacteria continue to grow, if at a greatly reduced rate. Eventually, increasing acidity will stop the fermentation, and the carb count will stop dropping. According to Dr. Jack Goldberg, of The GO-Diet, if you see whey (that clearish liquid) separating from the white part of the yogurt, it's fermented about as far as it can, and will be pretty low carb -- count 4 grams per cup.

Many low carbers choose Greek yogurt, because it is lower carb than regular plain yogurt. Why? Because much of the residual carbohydrate in well-fermented yogurt is in the whey, and Greek yogurt has had the whey drained off. If you would like to, you can make Greek-style yogurt easily from any plain yogurt, simply by straining it. Line a colander with a clean coffee filter, set it over a bowl if you want to catch the whey, or in the sink if you want to discard it. (Why would you keep the whey with its carbs? I might feed mine to my dogs or chickens. And some people feed it to their plants. It's nourishing stuff, carbs and all.)

Or you can buy Greek yogurt, of course. The brand of Greek yogurt I see around here is Fage; I confess I haven't tried it. Why? I make my own yogurt. I was excited when the front page of the Fage website said their yogurt was made from raw milk and raw cream, but further clicking around revealed that they then pasteurize that raw milk and cream, meaning it's not raw anymore. I'll try it, but probably keep making my own most of the time. It's cheaper and more convenient, and I control the length of fermentation.

What about the special bifidus regularis culture in Activia, the one they claim only they have, and that supposedly does something magical for your digestive tract? I have no doubt that Activia can improve digestion. I'm just unconvinced that theirs is the only yogurt with this property. Dannon also has, in the past, made claims for their DanActive yogurt drink, with its seemingly special l. casei immunitas," which was supposed to improve immune function. Again, I don't doubt it, but I question that theirs is the only yogurt with this property.

Let me let you in on a little-known trick of the advertising trade (says the girl whose father lived Mad Men): Companies can take a particular ingredient or component of their class of product, give it a special name, trademark that name -- and voila! They can legally say only their product contains Super-duper-ingredient (tm).

Guess what? At the Activia website, they refer to their special bacteria as Bifidus Regularis (tm). It defines it as "A unique probiotic strain of bifidobacteria that was specially selected by Dannon to be added to Activia. Activia is the only yogurt in the world that contains Bifidus Regularis (tm)."

Hmm. They selected this bacteria; that tells me it already existed. If they'd developed it or created it or cross-bred it or something, they'd say so. So I'm guessing they looked at the various strains of bifidobacteria used in various yogurts and other cultured milk products, picked one they thought was particularly useful, and gave it their own trademarked name. No way to know if some other brand of yogurt has the same sort of bacteria without the trademarked name, but there's little reason from this to think that the bacteria itself is exclusive. Not so coincidentally, the l. casei immunitas used in DanActive, and originally touted as strengthening the immune system, also comes with a (tm) after it.

Activia has sugar in all of its flavors, and all of the single-serving size versions are flavored. You can get plain Activia in 24 oz tubs, though I haven't noticed it locally. Then again, I usually make my own yogurt, so I'm not looking as hard as I might. DanActive is in a drinkable form; apparently the two "light" flavors use inulin and sucralose (Splenda) for sweeteners.

I do think it likely that the more different bacterial cultures your yogurt contains, the more beneficial it will be. I use Stonyfield Farm yogurt as my starter for making homemade yogurt, because it contains 6 different types of bacteria:

* Lactobacillus bulgaricus
* Streptococcus thermophilus
* Lactobacillus acidophilus
* Bifidus
* Lactobacillus casei
* Lactobacillus rhamnosus

I'm guessing that generic bifidus is a near-relative of Bifidus Regularis (tm), and lactobacillus casei is a kissin' cousin of l. casei immunitas. Makes good yogurt, at any rate.

I was going to tell you how I make my own yogurt, but I haven't had supper yet, and it's nearly 9. More later.

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