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Choosing the Best Yogurt

What to consider when deciding between yogurt brands.

If you're serious about choosing the best yogurt, of the highest quality, there's a bit of homework involved. Like anything else, not all yogurts are created equal.

The chart below shows the differences in yogurt production between 4 different yogurt brands. This little project began when I found out most organic milk, supposedly including that destined to become organic yogurt, is ultra-pasteurized. Horrified, I set out to determine whether my favorite, and high-dollar, yogurt, Stonyfield, was actually crap. And perhaps a cheaper brand, such as Dannon, might be of better quality, if it's not ultra-pasteurized. Easy enough.

But then it got complicated.

Apparently the temperature used for producing yogurt is considered proprietary information by many yogurt manufacturers. I find this lack of transparency incredibly annoying. Consumers have a right to know how their food is produced. Stonyfield kindly acknowledged my annoyance, and I kindly went about finding a different brand of yogurt. Problem is, only Dannon would share the actual temperature used, and as my research progressed, it was looking like Dannon wasn't the best yogurt on other counts.

In the end, I was actually surprised by how much the final products differ.

Key factors for determining the best yogurt.

The important points to consider:

Pasteurization

While it kills off the living organisms in raw milk, the milk still has sufficient nutritional value to support microbial growth. So we can use this milk to culture beneficial organisms, yogurt cultures in this case, returning the milk to a vital (but different) state.

Best is to make yogurt from raw milk, whereby you turn an already vital food into an even better food. This is how yogurt originated - from raw milk. But it is illegal to sell raw milk products across state lines, so availability in a food store is rare.

Ultra-pasteurization or UHT (Ultra High Temperature)

This process not only kills off the living organisms, but uses high enough temperatures to make alterations biochemically, bursting cell walls and creating free-floating toxins. Milk treated thusly will no longer support microbial growth. Manufacturers can then use additives to make the "yogurt" congeal and appear like yogurt should. The reason I asked these yogurt manufacturers if the milk protein, casein, is altered is because UHT is known to do so.

Homogenization

The most prized part of milk is the cream. This is because of the butterfat. And butterfat is a beautiful thing. But homogenization destroys the fat molecules' natural structure; they are broken apart under great pressure so they no longer float to the top of your milk.

Does this have health consequences to those who drink it? Some studies are saying yes. It's a process that benefits milk producers, not milk consumers. It's a process I can do without, thank you very much.

Organic Milk

For milk to be labeled organic, farmers must use organic feed and not use antibiotics or growth hormones, and more recently, must pasture the animals for a minimum of 120 days during the grazing season (about 4 months). This grazing requirement was added to combat the large corporate "organic dairies" who were meeting the minimum requirements, while still subjecting the animals to feedlot conditions. Surely this new requirement will help, but the best milk, and the best yogurt, highest in nutritional value (not to mention ethical value), comes from healthy cows whose lives are led in pasture and sunshine and fresh air. This is best achieved at small family-owned dairy operations. Stonyfield is a leader in promoting and protecting such farms.

Cultures

The more different strains of beneficial bacteria (or cultures) in a yogurt, the better for our health and digestion. "Culture density" refers to how many of the living beneficial organisms are present in the finished yogurt. Be sure any yogurt you buy says "living cultures" on the label. A practice that can be used by nefarious yogurt producers is to pasteurize the yogurt after culturing, thus killing everything again and leaving the consumer little of value to ingest.

Additives

To reduce my intake of additives, I only buy plain yogurt. I can add my own fruit and sugar if I want, and bypass the long list of flavorings and enhancers they might add to a flavored yogurt. That's why the following chart on yogurt brands refers to plain versions only. But even plain yogurt has had some things added:

milk solids - used to balance out the natural variances in milk composition, for uniform labeling
pectin (from apples) - used to help thicken the final product
gelatin (usually from animal sources) - used for thickening
cornstarch (from corn) - used for thickening

This is just a quick overview; milk processing is a complex thing, and politically charged as well. The more I research it, the more I feel I've fallen into a bottomless pit. But I've done enough research, and had enough personal experiences, to convince me to stick always to the least processed milk and milk products as I can.

The chart of yogurt brands.

The information below is based on the plain, full-fat, versions of the companies' yogurt lines - except for Yoplait, which doesn't even offer a yogurt that hasn't been stripped of its beautiful cream. And why do I insist on full-fat? Because milk fat (butterfat) is a healthy, natural saturated fat -- as long as it hasn't been destroyed by homogenization or UHT (see above).

The yogurt brands chosen are the ones available in my area. You may have different brands, but a quick phone call to the manufacturers should give you the necessary information to find the best yogurt for you. And for more information about the nutritional benefits of yogurt, see here.

Update: Stonyfield Cream Top yogurt, the favorite as determined by the chart below, is no longer available. After a quick phone call to Brown Cow to verify their information is still accurate, their Cream Top yogurts are looking like the best choice from among nationally-available commercial brands. Although they are not organic as of yet, I appreciate that they aren't destroying the fat molecules by the homogenization process.

Of course, the best recommendation is still to make your own yogurt. Second choice is to find a locally-produced brand (one that isn't attempting to cross state lines) and make a phone call or two, applying the criteria found on this page, and draw your own conclusions.

As for me, I've mostly quit using yogurt, and instead use homemade creme fraiche. About a 1/3 cup of creme fraiche with some fresh fruit, and I have a breakfast that has me feeling satisfied for hours. In cooking or as a condiment, creme fraiche shines too.


 
Dannon
Stonyfield Farms
Brown Cow
Yoplait
Owned by
Groupe Danone
85% owned by Groupe Danone
owned by Stonyfield Farms which is 85% owned by Groupe Danone
General Mills is the franchisee for the french-owned Yoplait
# of culture strains
3
6
4
3
culture density
100 million/gram at production
10 million/gram at end of shelf life
2 billion/gram
throughout shelf life
2 billion/gram
throughout shelf life
exceeds 100 million/gram at production
100 million/gram at end of shelf life
pasteurization
heated slowly to 212° (regular pasteurization)
won't give temp, but NOT UHT
won't give temp, but NOT UHT
won't give temp, and won't deny UHT
is casein altered?
they "don't know"
not altered
they "don't know"
not altered
homogenized?
yes
no
no
yes
additives
milk solids
milk solids
pectin
pectin
cornstarch
kosher gelatin
pectin
bovine growth hormone
no rBGH
no rBGH
no rBGH
may have rBGH*
organic?
no
yes
no, but intend to be in the future
no
support small farmers and sustainable agriculture?
no
yes! they are pioneers in this
yes
no
my price
1.96/quart
4.79/quart
4.29/quart
I don't care enough to find out
*apparently, there are Yoplait products with a seal declaring "rBGH free", available only in some areas

 

My personal determination of the best yogurt for me

(Be sure to read the Update above.)

I still use Stonyfield Cream Top when I must, for its convenience, but I make my own yogurt as often as possible. There's just too much conflicting information for me to use Stonyfield wholeheartedly. The addition of pectin (which Dannon doesn't use) implies they have trouble getting it to congeal. ...or do they just want it thicker?

The guaranteed high, no extra-high, culture density implies the bacteria are not starving during long-distance transport, as you'd expect if the milk were ultra-pasteurized. And the fact that they "know" the casein is not altered, also implies the milk is not ultra-pasteurized.

In the very end, it was my gut that sealed my final vote for Stonyfield over Dannon: When I switched from a carton of Dannon over to one of Stonyfield in my favorite frozen yogurt recipe, I FELT a difference. It FELT better. It FELT more nourishing. It could be the higher bacteria count. It could be the lack of homogenization. It could be that it's organic. I don't know. My body spoke. And I listened.

So my vote for the best yogurt, commercially produced and available in my area, goes to Stonyfield.

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