Decoding Yogurt

by Richard Xiao
Real Food for Kids Intern
George Mason University, School of Nutrition and Food Studies

It’s time to get the scoop on yogurt (yoghurt if you’re international). It’s healthy, right? But what about all that sugar? Doesn’t that make it less healthy than it should be?


Let’s start with the basics.

First, what is yogurt exactly? It’s a fermented milk product made with cultured bacteria (usually lactobacillus) that converts the naturally-occurring sugar lactose into lactic acid. That’s what gives it its distinct texture and flavor. And that bacteria is good for a health digestive system.

Second, the naturally-occurring sugars in yogurt are lactose, glucose and galactose, but those won’t be broken out in the ingredient list. Instead you’ll see them listed as grams of “sugars.” Those sugars translate to carbohydrates. For example, a label might read:

  • 4 oz. whole milk plain yogurt
  • 69 calories
  • 4g protein
  • 4g total fat
  • 5g total carbohydrates
  • 5g sugars

Low-fat varieties often compensate for the loss of taste that come with the reduction in fat by adding in sugar. If you see sucrose or fructose on the ingredient label, you’ll see a corresponding bump in grams of sugar and carbs, such as

  • 4 oz. low fat milk plain yogurt (generic)
  • 71 calories
  • 6g protein
  • 2g total fat
  • 8g total carbohydrates
  • 8g sugars

And how about yogurts with added fruits or flavors to offset that distinctive tangy taste? Any syrups and honeys will contribute to the sugar and carb count as well, sometimes double or more.

Yogurt with added flavor…

  • 4 oz. low fat milk vanilla yogurt (generic).
  • 96 calories
  • 6g protein
  • 2g total fat
  • 16g total carbohydrates
  • 16g sugars
  • 194mg calcium

Yogurt with added sugar…

  • 4 oz. low fat milk fruit yogurt (generic)
  • 115 calories
  • 5g protein
  • 1g total fat
  • 22g total carbohydrates
  • 22g sugars

Unfortunately, there is no label that separates natural and added sugars yet. We’ll have to wait for the new nutrition labels to roll out in the coming years to see added sugars as their own unit. In the meantime, if you’re concerned about added sugars, take some time and compare the yogurt containers the next time you shop (if you see sucrose or fructose on the ingredient list it means sugar has been added). You’ll be surprised at the range of discrepancies. If you want a safe bet, buy plain and add your own toppings and sweeteners.


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