I originally wrote this article for The Mind Gut Connection...
We’ve all been there, wandering down the dairy aisle trying to pick a yogurt from the dozens on display. Add in the dairy-free options and the options seem endless. All you know is that you want something healthy, and you also want it to taste good. So how are you supposed to choose?
There are a few key things to consider, so let’s break it down a bit to make it easier to decide what to use in your yogurt bowl:
If you eat dairy and can easily digest it, your best bet is unsweetened organic grass-fed cow’s milk yogurt. Organic dairy products come from animals that are not treated with hormones or antibiotics and eat pesticide-free feed. This is important, because it means your yogurt will not contain residual antibiotics, growth hormones or pesticide residue as can be found in conventional dairy products. One study found residue levels in conventional milk samples that “exceed federal limits.”
Organic milk (which is used to make yogurt), has also been found to contain higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk. These fatty acids are linked with lower cardiovascular disease risk among other health benefits.
The nutritional differences between organic and conventional dairy can often be attributed to whether or not the animal grazes on grass or is fed grain. Organically raised livestock must consume 30% of their diet from grass during the grazing season. Grass-fed dairy has been shown to contain 50% more omega-3 fatty acids than dairy derived from grain-fed animals. Additionally, the production of grass-fed dairy is more ethical since the animals are not confined to small, cramped enclosures.
If you eat dairy, but it does not always agree with you, you may want to try unsweetened goat or sheep’s milk yogurt (ideally grass-fed organic as well). Both options are thicker than typical cow’s milk yogurt and have an earthier flavor. Goat and sheep’s milk may be easier to break down and digest since the fat globules are smaller than those of cow’s milk. Additionally, goat’s milk contains slightly less lactose (the sugar in milk) than cow’s milk, making it easier for some people to digest.
Lactose is the most common culprit for indigestion from dairy consumption as “…lactase activity decreases during mid-childhood (about five years of age), resulting in low levels from that age onwards” for most people, except for the Inuit.
Greek yogurt, a thicker version of classic yogurt, also contains less lactose and more casein (one of the proteins found in dairy). In order to make Greek yogurt, yogurt is strained, and the whey is removed, which concentrates protein and lowers the overall lactose content. If you are looking to up your protein intake, opting for Greek yogurt can add around 15g of protein per serving to your diet.
If you’re vegan, or if dairy just does not sit right with you, look for dairy-free options with minimal ingredients. There are numerous dairy-free options available made from coconut, almond, cashew, oats, or soy to name a few. And while one is not necessarily better than the others, oat milk options tend to contain more carbohydrates while nut-based options tend to be higher in plant-based fat content. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure the yogurt contains live and active cultures to reap the benefits of probiotics.
Ideally, avoid yogurts with long lists of additives, especially artificial flavors, and sweeteners as these can potentially harm the beneficial bacteria living in your gut. And regardless of the type of yogurt you prefer, choose unsweetened plain options when available. Consuming large amounts of added sugar has been linked with weight gain and a heightened risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
A diet loaded with added sugar has also been shown to promote higher levels of inflammation in the body. Instead, try adding a serving of anti-inflammatory berries to plain yogurt for natural sweetness and added nutrients.
To recap, choosing the best yogurt depends on your preferences and dietary needs. While grass-fed organic options are best for those who consume dairy, there are many great dairy-free options on the market as well. Ultimately, picking a yogurt with minimal ingredients free of ultra-processed additives will provide the most health benefits and reduce your risk of chronic inflammation and disease.