Winnipeg became the probiotic hub of North America last month when about 100 scientists arrived here to talk about how they could change the rules about the information on yogurt labels.
Meanwhile, readers have told me that despite everything they read about yogurt, they are still confused about which of the dozens of brands on their grocery store shelves they should take home.
To help, here is a yogurt primer that will answer some of the most pressing yogurt questions:
How does Greek yogurt compare with regular yogurt?
Greek yogurt seems to be all the rage these days -- and for good reason.
Greek yogurt is higher in protein than regular yogurt. Where regular yogurt may contain nine grams of protein in a 180-ml (3/4-cup) serving, the same amount of Greek yogurt could contain more than 20. You can get it with various fat counts, but even the non-fat version of Greek yogurt is extra thick and high in muscle-building protein. That's because of the process of making it (the term refers to the way it's made, not necessarily where it's made). After the milk and/or cream to make yogurt is heated and enriched with live bacterial cultures, it is strained in a fine filter. This removes the water and the whey.
The result is a yogurt that contains double the protein, just because it's more concentrated. It's also extra thick and doesn't require added thickeners such as gelatin, cornstarch and carrageenan that are sometimes found in conventional North American yogurt.
Some people prefer to use Greek yogurt in cooking applications. A sauce or dip made with Greek yogurt will appear more creamy than one made with regular yogurt, which can be watery. Greek yogurt is also more filling.
I have heart disease. Are Greek yogurts too rich for me?
By "rich," you are probably referring to the thickness of Greek yogurt. Don't confuse thickness with fat content. Even skim-milk Greek yogurt will be thick and rich-looking. At the same time, if you have heart disease or high cholesterol, it's probably wise to choose a yogurt (Greek or otherwise) with a lower fat content -- say, one per cent or less. If you like a creamy yogurt, a low-fat Greek variety will (almost) make you feel like you're feasting on ice cream but without all the cholesterol-raising, artery-narrowing saturated fat.
What should I look for in the ingredient list on a yogurt container?
If your yogurt contains just milk, cream and active bacterial cultures, you'll be doing well. When fillers such as gelatin, cornstarch, locust bean gum and carrageenan make the ingredient list, you know the manufacturers have thickened the yogurt using short cuts -- unnecessary additives you don't need. Whenever possible, choose plain yogurts over yogurts with fruit or sugar added. Sweetening plain yogurt yourself with honey, yogurt or a sprinkling of sugar gives you more control about the amount of sugar you're ingesting.
Are flavoured, sweetened yogurts as healthy as plain yogurt?
For most people, the answer is no. Many sweetened or flavoured yogurts contain excessive amounts of sugar, especially considering the often unrealistically small serving sizes listed on the label. For example, the 100-gram serving of Oikos peach mango yogurt lists 12 grams of sugar on the package, but that's only five or six tablespoons of yogurt. A more realistic serving size would be one cup (250 ml). That amount of Oikos cherry yogurt would contain about 30 grams of sugar, more than a Snickers chocolate bar.
What's the big deal with sugar?
While most healthy people can handle the odd excess sugar load, it's a fact that sweetened yogurt temporarily spikes blood sugar levels and triggers the release of insulin. This hormone, while necessary, can help store abdominal fat. It can also lead to narrowed arteries over time when released in excess. Not to mention that fast-acting forms of sugar like the kind found in yogurt are extremely undesirable for someone who has -- or who is at risk for -- Type 2 diabetes.
At the same time, a quality sweetened yogurt is still contains valuable nutrients. A sweetened yogurt may be just what an active person needs before or after a workout to replenish carbohydrates.
Gina Sunderland, a registered dietitian who works with cancer patients, told the Free Press in recent interview that she might encourage a patient undergoing chemotherapy to choose a sugared yogurt over a plain one, since they would likely benefit from the extra calories and carbohydrates.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are micro-organisms scientists say are beneficial to the body, especially to the gut. Yogurt makers are using this buzzword to market their yogurts to consumers.
Do all yogurts contain probiotics?
Yes. All fermented foods, including yogurt, contain probiotics. To make sure your yogurt is, in fact, the genuine fermented product, look for the words "active bacterial cultures" or "live bacterial cultures" on the ingredient list. Some brands advertise the type of probiotic in their yogurts right on the container. Danone has developed and trademarked its own strains of probiotics and put a lot of money into marketing its product. However, that doesn't mean you should dismiss the probiotics in other brands of yogurt.
Does it matter what strains of probiotics I'm ingesting?
Yogurt companies and scientists say different types of probiotics have different effects on the body. Most agree that any amount of probiotics is beneficial to the system. But whether a probiotic can help your specific ailment is a complicated matter, says Peter Jones, a food chemist and head of Winnipeg's Richardson Centre for Functional Foods. "It depends on the species, the strain, the mixture of bacteria, the genetic makeup of the person consuming it," he says.
What does the science say about probiotics?
Many western doctors verbally "prescribe" yogurt to patients taking antibiotics to replenish the so-called good bacteria the antibiotics are killing off.
According to a 2010 paper published in Gut Microbes, experts appear to agree that probiotics could be effective in reducing the rotavirus diarrhea in infants, antibiotic-associated diarrhea in adults and clostridium difficile infections. They also agree that some probiotics reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and alleviate digestive discomfort. The same experts agree probiotics can reduce the frequency and severity of necrotizing enterocolitis in premature infants.
However, the effect of probiotics in inflammatory bowel disease, atopic dermatitis and respiratory infections were found to be "promising" but "inconsistent."
If the science behind probiotics is so promising, why is the term so controversial?
Most of the controversy is about how companies market themselves. Earlier this year, the European Food Safety Authority effectively banned the use of the term "probiotics" on food labels in Europe.
This comes after the U.S. arm of French yogurt maker Danone settled a class-action lawsuit in 2009, in which the company paid more than $21 million for exaggerating the science behind the claims that some of their yogurts could aid digestion or prevent colds.
Shortly after, a Montreal woman won a class-action lawsuit over the same advertising issues.
Will the specific probiotic content ever be clearly marked on the yogurt tub?
Scientists from around the continent met in Winnipeg last month to discuss this issue. They hope they can band together their probiotic research to convince Health Canada to let them make health claims about their probiotics on the label.
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