greek yogurt parfait, photo by hudson valley food photographer caylena cahill

Yogurt, Sugar and Your Health – A Discussion

As you may or may not have realized by now, I am passionate about (read: obsessed with) food and health.

Context

Recently, over the last few months, I’ve been really paying attention the nutritional content, ingredients and health claims on packaging. After watching documentaries bordering on propaganda against the food industry, and encountering many “diet” books that make a lot of claims which may seem outlandish or that use “science” to back up their claims – it’s just really difficult to know who to trust when it comes to what’s actually healthy and making decisions on what to actually eat. That’s why I want to share my approaches.

What is “healthy”?

Being that I’m a food photographer and potentially in a position to help change the state and landscape of the food industry – at least in what I put out there and who I decide to work with/for – I aim to collaborate with companies who produce foods that I actually would or do eat. And that means, they create or promote foods that qualify for my definition of “healthy”:

  • minimally or not processed;
  • excluding unnecessary, artificial ingredients, ingredients which have been shown to be detrimental or are banned in other countries, and excess sugar;
  • containing valuable nutrients that can be accessed for energy and contribute positively to the body, digestive and immune systems and moods, leaving us feeling good physically and mentally.

These are the rules I use to govern my own eating.

How and Why I Eat How I Do

I eat in terms of my overall health fitness goals. Health, to me, is about more than just weight, lack of disease and looks. It’s about energy, moods/mental health, fitness performance, looks, weight, etc. So, for myself, when it comes to the nutritional content and calories and my fitness goals are currently weight loss oriented, so, I aim for a lower carb approach with a calorie deficit (i.e. I burn more calories than I take in). This means I aim to eat more protein and naturally occurring fats, and get the majority of my carbs from fruits, vegetables and dairy products, rather than from grains (even whole grains) and added/refined sugar. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I fail and eat a croissant, grilled cheese, pasta/rice or french toast. But, this is about the majority of the time, and you can bounce back.

(I am using this method based on the recent scientific developments that suggest the tendency for sugars and carbs to be processed by the liver and converted to fat storage in the body, as well as the recent findings about the gut microbiome (i.e. the communities of bacteria living along our digestive tract) suggesting that the ratio of good to bad bacteria contributes to weight gain, as well as the fact that sugars and grains tend to feed the bad bacteria more than the good ones, leading to an overgrowth of that type.)

So, I eat a lot of yogurt. And I’m picky about it.

As a result, I pay a lot of attention to the nutritional labels on packaged foods… and in particular, yogurts. You could definitely say I’m picky when it comes to food selection, yogurts in particular. And just today, I’ve spent a few hours looking at the ingredients and nutritional labels on several yogurt companies websites.

Regular VS Light/Fat Free… and sugar.

I already was, but am now even more frustrated with the “low fat” and “light” claims on packaging. Typically these claims are meant to make the food seem healthy, but please remember that if they’ve removed fat where it would otherwise be naturally occurring, such as in milk/yogurt, they have likely replaced the fat with something else, because fat = flavor. And, usually, they replace it with sugar (honey, syrup, evaporated cane juice, cane sugar, beet sugar, sucrose, dextrose, aspartame, fructose, corn syrup, rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup, etc.).

And, when they do that, they are taking away from the natural value of yogurt – the real benefits of which are fat and protein content, and low natural sugars/carbs. Yes, yogurt does have natural sugar, as does the fruit they add into the package. Unfortunately, however, the labels do not discern between natural and added sugars – yet. So, if you’re also concerned about your sugar intake, it’s very complicated to know just how much added sugar you’re getting when you eat the average container of commercially produced yogurt.

How much sugar should you eat?

And, in case you hadn’t heard, the FDA now recommends no more than 12.5 teaspoons, or 50 grams (source), which is TWICE the recommended amount from the World Health Organization, who suggests limiting added sugars to no more than 6 teaspoons, or 25 grams per day (source).

Sugar and Yogurt

But, there is often more sugar – whether natural or added – in the “light” or “low-fat” versions, which are marketed to be healthy. Because there is not distinction between natural or added sugar on the label, it’s also difficult to know where you stand on how much added sugar you’re actually getting from the yogurt. However, I saw some pretty staggering numbers on the labels. Remember that depending on the brand, recipe and quantity, there can be anywhere from 3g to 8g of naturally occurring sugars (i.e. lactose) per serving. A good way to get a baseline for comparison is to check out the plain or original variety of whatever brand you’re going for, check the ingredients list to see if there are added sugars, and if there are not, the sugar quantity listed in the nutritional content is naturally occurring and not added. Another thing to remember, is that if you choose a variety that includes actual fruit, some of the sugar will be naturally occurring in the fruit, which is also ok. However, most of the yogurts on the market also include added, and probably refined, sugars. I saw some sugar quantities up in the 30g range for 1 serving for non “light” varieties and in the teens and low twenties for “light” versions. Listen, I’m not telling you to not eat it, but before you do, ask yourself if you want to use your daily allowance of either 25 or 50g of added sugars by eating “healthy” yogurt.

What I do… and what you should do.

My preference for yogurt is to eat plain greek yogurt, either full fat or 2%, and add fruit and granola. The granola is typically sweet enough on it’s own to balance with the fruit and tartness of the yogurt. (I’ll admit, it took a little while to reprogram my tastebuds to accept that, and I used some honey in the process. But, now, it’s definitely fine, and it’s all in the ratios.) I warn you though, if you take up this approach, this method can take your snack from 100 calories (in the case of popular “light” yogurts) of sugar, carbs and a little protein, to 200-300 nutrient dense calories from healthy fat, protein and whole grains (and a little maple syrup/honey used to sweeten the granola). But, for me, it’s more filling and I can go longer before eating again, and I’ll often have it as more of a meal (breakfast, light lunch) anyway.

Of course, I can’t tell you what to do. Or even what you should do. And I don’t want to either. But, my goal is just to get you to be aware and to think about what you’re putting into your body. So, the next time you go to pick up a yogurt container, engage your curiosity and check the label. Then, ask yourself if that’s what you want. If it’s not, either eat it this time and don’t buy it again, or put that cup down and reach for something else that better suits your needs.