This ancient food, which has long sustained the populations of the Middle East and Mediterranean, didn’t figure in the British diet until relatively recently, but now yoghurt is a regular feature in our fridges. Where the first plain (or natural) yoghurts were often challengingly astringent, we can now choose from a toothsome assortment, many of which bear more resemblance to desserts than they do to the original time-honoured dairy food.
In its traditional form, yoghurt is made by adding Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus bacteria to cow’s, sheep’s, goat’s – even buffalo – milk. These bacteria ferment and thicken the milk, thus giving it its sharp, clean flavour.
An impressive array of research now suggests that in its simple form, yoghurt is a truly healthy food. Benefits associated with eating it include immune system support, reduced constipation, lower body fat, less risk of colo-rectal cancer, stronger bones and fresher breath. People who are lactose-intolerant can sometimes digest yoghurt when they can’t manage milk because the lactose (milk sugar) is converted into lactic acid.
The health-improving qualities of yoghurt are down to its nutrients, such as protein, calcium, B vitamins, potassium and zinc, but also to the presence of the ‘live’ (still active) bacteria mentioned above, or other similar strains like Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidus.
Some brands make a selling point out of containing live, ‘friendly’ or ‘probiotic’ bacteria (microorganisms that confer a health benefit) as though this was a something out of the ordinary. In fact, any yoghurt is live and has a probiotic effect as long as it has not been pasteurised. British yoghurts are usually made with milk that has already been pasteurised,
so can be considered live and probiotic, even if they don’t say so on the label. The only exceptions here are long-life yoghurts, which are pasteurised after fermentation to extend their shelf-life.
Most of the yoghurt we eat in the UK is made by stirring the milk and bacteria in tanks and allowing it to thicken. French-style yoghurt is usually fermented or set in the pot, giving it a firmer texture, while the Greek-style strained yoghurt has most of its whey removed to produce a thicker consistency.
If you usually buy flavoured yoghurt, check the label to see what else you are eating. Many are loaded with sugar – everything from straight sugar through to glucose and fructose syrups to condensed milk – and also contain synthetic colourings and flavourings. The label, for instance, may boast real Madagascan vanilla, but it is only when you look at the full list of ingredients that you realise that it also contains synthetic vanilla flavouring.
Lower-fat versions of flavoured yoghurt may seem like the healthier choice, but these often have higher levels of sugars or artificial sweeteners to compensate for the reduction in flavour. And because skimmed milk is thinner, stabilisers – such as milk proteins, starches, gelatine, agar, pectin, guar gum, milk and whey powder – are commonly added.
Big yoghurt brands dominate our shelves, but small-scale dairies in the UK are now making interesting local yoghurts, often using organic milk, which some research suggests is better for you than the conventional stuff. It’s good to try out different yoghurts, but the acid test of any brand is the intrinsic quality of the plain, natural version.