It’s Alive! Yogurt's Health Secret is Live Bacterial Cultures

It’s fun to tell people about the billions of bacteria living it up in their yogurt cup. Without bacteria, the world as we know it would grind to a halt (nothing could biodegrade, for example), but it’s still a bit unnerving to think about countless microorganisms somersaulting in our intestines. The national mania for disinfecting everything makes it hard for some to accept the microscopic critters in our guts, where they do some of their best work. But there’s no ignoring these beneficial bugs, and everyone from farm stands to strip mall retailers are advertising how many types of bacteria their yogurts contain for good reason. Recent scientific studies have shown that the bacteria in yogurt is key to its value as a health food.

©GETTY IMAGES yogurt alternatives

The Healthy Snack

Of course, bacteria isn’t the only thing that makes yogurt a great snack or breakfast choice. “Cow’s milk yogurt is packed with calcium, protein and Vitamin D,” says Althea Zincowski, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. People who are allergic to milk products, or very lactose intolerant, can try a non-milk soy-based yogurt. Most, but not all of the lactose (natural milk sugar) in yogurt is digested by beneficial bacteria, so the majority of lactose-intolerant people can eat yogurt unless they are very sensitive. For a more exotic flavor or animal alternative to cow’s milk, there are also goat’s milk and sheep’s milk yogurts.

“Yogurt contains probiotics, the good bacteria that keep the intestinal tract healthy,” says Cynthia Stadd, a New York City-based integrative nutrition and holistic health specialist. “They work by balancing the yeast levels in your gut, and they fight the bad bacteria, meaning less bloating and gas, and more regular digestion.” These good bacteria have also been proven to shorten the course of infectious diarrhea in children, lessen antibiotic-associated diarrhea, and may help “maintain remission of ulcerative colitis and prevent a relapse of Crohn’s disease,” according to the Harvard Women’s Health Watch newsletter. Some natural health practitioners also support the idea that good bacteria can increase general immunity, help treat acne and stomach ulcers and keep women’s vaginal and urinary tracts healthy, though studies are not yet conclusive.

Label Watch

The beneficial bacteria (at least two types, and sometimes four or more) are listed on the label. Better-quality yogurts generally contain more varieties of bacteria (and tend to cost more). Stonyfield Farms, the leader in the organic yogurt market, lists six different live and active cultures, and Horizon Organic, five. Stadd explains, “More bacteria is better,” partially because different bacteria do different jobs. L. reuteri bacteria specifically targets E.coli and Salmonella bacterias by inhibiting their growth in the gut. A November 2005 study in Environmental Health showed that adults who regularly ingested L. reuteri reported a reduced number of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections.

The ingredient list on the yogurt container offers a wealth of information beyond its bacterial content. “A big issue with yogurts is that some are full of sugar,” says Stadd. “People think they’re eating something healthy but they’re not. Get plain yogurt and add fresh fruit or a natural sweetener like agave or maple syrup.” Steer clear of “fruit” in fruit-on-the-bottom yogurts as well, which Zincowski explains is “just like eating jelly.” It contains fruit, but it does not count toward the recommended daily servings of fiber.

The average American eats more than 150 pounds of refined sugar a year, mostly through processed and snack foods. Moderation is the key. “Eating a sweetened yogurt is still a better choice than a candy bar. Your choices should depend on what else you’ve eaten that day,” says Zincowski. Brown Cow yogurt is an exception; the company’s Fruit and Whole Grain yogurts are sweetened with maple syrup or naturally milled sugar, and come with sunflower and flax seeds, quinoa, rolled oats and barley on the bottom.

Beneficial Fats?

In the early 1990s, all fat was considered a health hazard, but recent studies have indicated that certain types belong in a healthy diet. Stadd recommends eating full-fat organic yogurts—but eating less of them, since flavor lost when fat is removed is often made up for in added sugars. “The fat is there for a reason, just eat it in moderation. It’s always better to eat a whole food,” says Stadd. Zincowski disagrees, advising consumers to “find the lowest fat that you will actually enjoy eating. If you’re eating it plain, non-fat might not do it for you. If you’re making smoothies or adding cereal to the yogurt, non-fat is a better choice.”

Organic is an important consideration for people who enjoy fattier yogurts, since toxins are stored in the fat cells of mammals. To produce organic yogurt, cows are fed grass or organically grown grains, which cannot include animal byproducts. In addition, organic cows are not given prophylactic antibiotics, and are bovine growth hormone (rBGH)-free. Organic cows must also have access to outdoor areas.

Many small farmers (such as those who sell their wares at the local farm stand or specialty store) cannot afford the expensive certification process to enable them to sell their yogurt under the organic label, but they may be engaged in organic processes nonetheless. Most farmers are very open about what they do and do not do with their animals, so don’t be afraid to ask. Indie Yogurts

Goat’s milk yogurt is more easily digestible and has less cholesterol than cow’s milk, and has a milder flavor than sheep’s milk yogurt or goat cheese. Sheep’s milk yogurt has a relatively strong flavor, but contains twice as much protein, 50 percent more calcium and half the amount of carbohydrates of cow’s milk yogurt. But it’s not an easy product to find. Farmer’s markets are the best places to look, though online retailers, including Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, ship to homes.

Soy yogurts, like other soy products, have been gaining in popularity, and most of the major brands, such as Silk and Whole Soy, have added the same kinds of bacteria to their yogurts as their animal-milk counterparts. Amy Lanou, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, recommends soy yogurts. “There is no difference in the quality of soy protein as compared to dairy,” says Lanou. “Soy is every bit as good for promoting muscle growth, and soy yogurts are fortified so their nutritional profile is as good as animal-milk varieties.”

Some doctors advise patients with breast cancer and other hormone-sensitive conditions to limit their soy intake (soy contains phytoestrogens, which can act like estrogen in the body), but others can aim for a balanced diet that includes soy yogurt. “You don’t want to eat too many servings of any one type of food,” Lanou cautions. “You should concentrate on eating a variety of foods.”

STARRE VARTAN, a regular contributor to E, reads yogurt labels.