Whether yogurt is a health food or junk food depends on who is talking

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Whether yogurt is a health food or junk food depends on who is talking
An organization supporting “family-scale” farming accuses the makers of Dannon, Yoplait and other yogurt manufacturers of misleading parents to believe their yogurts are healthy, even though some products include sugar and “myriad questionably safe artificial sweeteners, colors and emulsifiers.”

“Agribusiness, in their marketing approach, has capitalized on yogurt’s historic, well-deserved healthful reputation while simultaneously adulterating their products, sometimes illegally, to gain competitive advantage and popular appeal,”​  Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute says in a report released in November that declares a “culture war”​ on “giant food corporations, led by General Mills (Yoplait) and Group Danone (Dannon)​.”

But the National Yogurt Association counters that the report “is without merit and replete with factual and regulatory misstatements.”

It adds: “Consumers can continue to buy their favorite yogurts with confidence that they are getting healthful, nutritious and safe products for themselves and their families. In fact, consumers should be eating more yogurt because of its nutritional value.”

The Cornucopia Institute agrees Americans should be eating more yogurt, but it stresses all yogurts are not created equally.

“Yogurt, made the traditional way, is one of humanity’s traditional, nourishing foods. Milk from organic pasture-raised cows, rich in calcium, protein, beneficial fats and other healthy nutrients, is fermented using live cultures, resulting in a wholesome, life food teeming with beneficial microorganisms,”​ it writes in the report.

It then goes on to outline the ways in which many conventionally made, mainstream yogurts do not meet the FDA’s legal standard of identity for yogurt and, therefore, should not be labeled as yogurt.

“The FDA has a ‘standard of identity’ for yogurt that specifies which types of ingredients can and cannot be added to a product labeled and sold as ‘yogurt,’”​ it writes in the report. “Artificial sweeteners and artificial nutrients other than vitamin A and D do not appear on the FDA’s list. Therefore, any product containing these ingredients should not be marketed and sold as ‘yogurt.’”

The group urges the agency to investigate the issue in a formal complaint​ filed in October. 

Sugar-packed yogurts are misleading

Cornucopia also argues in its report that many yogurt makers are misleading consumers to think yogurts are healthy when in fact some products are packed with so much sugar and natural and artificial sweeteners that they rival the amount of sugar in candy bars and soda. It adds that conventional yogurt makers also use the non-caloric artificial sweetener aspartame, which Cornucopia said has been linked to brain tumors and neurological disease.

The group also takes issue with conventional yogurt makers’ use of artificial fruit flavors, which it says misleads consumers to think yogurt products contain real fruit when they do not.

For example, it says: “Yoplait Go-Gurt – ‘fruity’ drinkable yogurt in a tube marketed to children – has no actual fruit, but tastes and loos like fruit yogurt due to artificial colors and artificial flavors,”​ which the advocate group adds “have been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.”

A wide variety of yogurts for a wide variety of needs

Yogurt-maker Danone counters that it makes a variety of conventional and organic yogurt, including plain, unsweetened yogurt in traditional and Greek varieties, and fruit and sugar sweetened yogurt, as well as non-nutritive sweetened yogurt.

“To help people achieve a healthy diet in the way they define it for themselves, we make a huge range of nutrient dense varieties of yogurt to fulfill different needs and preferences,”​ Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations at Danone, told Food Navigator USA. He adds the variety serves both consumer preferences and budgets.

Carrageenan commonly used conventional yogurts

The use of carrageenan, a food thickener derived from seaweed, is another controversial ingredient commonly used by conventional yogurt makers that Cornucopia says could cause marketing claims to be false.

Many people buy yogurt for the probiotics it contains based on the belief they help improve digestion. However, Cornucopia says “the gut-wrenching thickener carrageenan,”​ has been linked to serious gastrointestinal inflammation and disease.

FDA rejected a citizen petition in 2012 asking it to ban carrageenan in foods because it allegedly could lead to ulcerative colitis and colon cancer. The agency said the in-vitro test tube studies submitted in support of the petition had “limited value”​ in determining the safety of ingesting the food. Since then, Cornucopia has urged consumers to avoid the ingredient and ask FDA to reconsider its determination. (Read more about it HERE​.) 

Some yogurt makers have or are planning to remove the ingredient from their products under consumer pressure, even though they continue to believe it is safe.

Among these firms is Stonyfield, which announced Sept. 26 that it would launch a revised version of its YoKids Squeezers yogurts without carrageenan in early 2015, with changes to its other recipes that include the thickener to follow soon after.

However, it notes on its website, that the ingredient has “been reviewed on three occasions over the past 20 years by the National Organic Standards Board – including, most recently, in 2012 – and deemed safe and appropriate for use in organic foods.”

Cornucopia questions other additives                                                  

Cornucopia also blasts conventional yogurt makers for using chemical defoamers that are banned in organic products.

“Defoamers, and many other ‘processing aids’ are not required by FDA to be listed in the ingredient label even though residues of these materials remain in food products,”​ it says.

Likewise, it chastises manufacturers of Greek yogurt for adding thickening agents, stabilizers and milk protein concentrate, which it says is imported and driving down the price of domestically produced dairy.

Ultimately, it says these ingredients are not necessary for producing healthy yogurt and it encourages in the report consumers who want healthy yogurt to buy organic yogurt with a short ingredient list.

“After all, all that is required for making healthy yogurt is fresh, organic milk and live cultures – with added organic fruit or unrefined sweeteners, if so desire,”​ it concluded. 

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2 comments

Correction Regarding MPC

Posted by Meghan B.,

Milk Protein Concentrate cannot be sourced from outside the country. In order for yogurt to be called "yogurt" it must be Grade A, and the FDA does not allow the use of milk that is sourced from outside the country. So, saying that yogurt contains MPC that is sourced from outside the country is absolutely not true. Meghan MS Food Scientist

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If I had an unwarranted health halo...

Posted by Michael Prager,

I'd defend it too, which is what the trade group is doing, IMO.

Yogurt starts out as a health food, but as with granola and many other products, "improving" products degrades them, and under a hail of marketing, the public is slow to catch on.

If your product is stuffed with added sugars and other crap, it's crap, even if it started out innocently.

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