As I mentioned in my last post, as I was doing research into the makings of commercial yogurt, I found a lot of information that surprised me, and not in good way, convincing me that homemade yogurt is really the only way to go. Real yogurt is a healthy and delicious food, and relatively easy to make at home-- not requiring any special equipment or ingredients.
So I wonder, how has this simple, two-ingredient food (yogurt + milk = more yogurt) become an entire, additive-laced aisle at the grocery store where very little real yogurt is to be found? As I researched what all those extra ingredients were, I ended up writing this really long post. If you’re willing to hang on for the ride, I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.
Let’s take a brief glance at the beginning. Yogurt’s history is long and deep, spanning multiple cultures and regions where milch animals (cow, sheep, goat, yak, etc) were domesticated. Aside from being in the cuisines of immigrants, the majority of the American population didn’t really use it in their diets until the 50’s and 60’s declared it a health food. But yogurt really became a common household food once some enterprising food manufacturers introduced sugary, fruity flavors to mask plain yogurt’s inherent sourness and make it appealing to the American palate.
…and then they made billions.
Now, little plastic cups of supersweet yogurt-ish food products fill the shelves, many with novel-length ingredient lists that sound more like laboratory chemicals than kitchen ingredients. But what can we do? For so many people, my former self included, yogurt and other packaged foods were surrounded in this subconscious feeling of inaccessibility; I fully entrusted its manufacture into the faceless and comforting hands of Dannon and Activia, believing that they must have had my best health in mind.
But frankly, after making my own yogurt for a while, I hesitate to think of most of the mainstream store stuff as yogurt anymore. (Of course, you can find real yogurt in health food stores, but its so expensive I think it is safe to bet that lots of consumers are going to reach for something cheaper and more familiar). And I don’t think it should be marketed as healthy because I think those laboratory ingredients are meant to create an eating experience, but not to nourish. There's a whole lot more in those tubs than milk and culture. Let me share my findings on those yogurt additives, based on three common tubs of yogurt that I used to buy and eat.
Ingredients-wise, Chobani isn’t that bad (though it is expensive). They’ve spent a lot of effort in their beautiful marketing to tell you their product is healthy and “all-natural,” and this was the yogurt I used to buy quite often.
Fruit Pectin and Locust Bean Gum (Thickeners): I loved the thickness of this yogurt, but as I glance at the ingredients, I realize that this was due to added thickeners. Though these thickeners are natural in origin, you can make your homemade yogurt thick simply by letting it strain through cheesecloth overnight (and then you get the bonus of having super-versatile, protein-packed whey to add to pancakes, bread, smoothies, or ferments!)
Natural Flavors: I’m always a little sketched-out by “natural flavors.” A vaguely-indicated ingredient like that could really be anything, from anywhere.
Evaporated Cane Sugar (sweetener): I'm glad that this is from sugar cane and not GMO corn or beets, but the amount of sugar in my favorite mango-on-the-bottom flavor is borderline absurd. There are a whopping SIXTEEN grams of sugar in 150 grams of yogurt. This tub is more than 10% just sugar, and this is not even their sweetest flavor. A little drizzle of honey on homemade yogurt is just as satisfying, and better for you.
For a little insight on why an excess of sugars are problematic, check out That Sugar Film.
Let’s break down their Trix yogurt--I saw this brand floating around a lot when I was working in a public school.
Sugar content of their Cotton Candy/Wildberry Flavor: 13 grams in 113 grams. While Yoplait has indicated on their website that they have decreased the amount of sugar added to their products, its still a lot of sugar to throw inside a kid’s yogurt. And it's not clear where that sugar is from (likely GMO sugar beets)
Modified Corn Starch (thickener) : I guarantee that this is from GMO corn. Also, the word “modified” is a tip-off that this corn starch is created through chemical or enzymatic means. In my book, something that I can’t create in my kitchen without a laboratory isn’t “food” and my body is better off without it.
Kosher Gelatin (thickener): While this is a naturally-derived byproduct of the meat industry, I can’t imagine that it was from animals that were on pasture and given the food that they are designed to eat. More like this is from sick, feedlot animals. Especially knowing that it is possible to thicken yogurt naturally without any added ingredients, I don’t like this one.
Potassium sorbate (preservative): Yogurt is a natural way to preserve milk for a time, so it bugs me when I see preservatives in cultured foods. It is also interesting to note that, when mixed with asorbic acid (another common food additive--often found in processed fruit or sodas) potassium sorbate can react with it to create a DNA-damaging toxin.
Citric Acid (preservative): I haven't found anything conclusive on the positive or negative affects of this additive (though knowing how potassium sorbate reacts with asorbic acid makes me wonder), but I did find it interesting that instead of being derived from citrus fruits (like I thought it was) commercial citric acid is derived from aspergillus niger, a fungus!
Natural Flavors: HOW VAGUE.
Dannon is even more familiar to me--it was a yogurt marketed to kids in my youth, and with their “Lite and Fit” lines, my college self used to think it was the best choice for keeping off the freshman fifteen. With a name like that, it’s bound to be good for you, right? Their website seems to make me want to think so by telling me that this “mouthwatering 5.3 ounce snack is 80 calories and 0 grams of fat.”
Oh, marketing, you clever manipulator. Let’s take a look at at what's in their “Lite and Fit Greek Raspberry Chocolate."
Fructose (sweetener): Fructose as an isolated ingredient never occurs in nature,and has been shown to severely tax the liver when consumed. Also, commercial fructose is commonly derived from sugar beets, sugar cane, or corn. This should be a red flag for the concerned, because it is HIGHLY likely that any commercial sugar beets or corn are GMO.
Modified Corn Starch (thickener): See my note in the Yoplait section above about corn starch.
Malic Acid( flavor enhancer): This is a naturally-occurring acid found in fruits like apples, and its sourness is often used to mask the weird tastes of artificial sweeteners. Not a good sign.
Natural and Artificial Flavors: AGAIN, SO SKETCHY. It's hard to research what these actually are. But I never like the word “artificial.”
Sucralose (sweetener): this is the generic name for Splenda, basically. Lab tests have shown that one of its many side effects is harming the microbiome of your gut bacteria.
Potassium sorbate (preservative): see my note in the Yoplait section on this preservative
Acesulfame (sweetener): I’d never heard of this one before. Five minutes of research shows that this artificial sweetener might cause tumors and has been shown to inhibit brain activity. SHEESH. Getting a short kick of fakey-sweet that you have to mask with malic acid is not worth it. This shouldn’t even be in food.
Sodium Nitrate (yet another preservative): Known to increase cancer risk, particularly of colon cancer.
This post may come across as condescending or nitpicky. Why attack yogurt when there's so much worse food out there? I'm just trying to be aware of what is in my family's food, and that requires me to be nitpicky. But I’m not here to demonize yogurt companies. They know how to make a product that people want to repeatedly eat, and they’ve been successful in it. But knowing that any ingredient beyond milk and active cultures are unnecessary for making yogurt, I feel that their products are full of manipulation, controlling your taste buds with sugars, weird preservatives, and artificial thickeners. Worst of all, they spend a lot of effort telling you that this is really good for you.
This is obviously bigger than yogurt. To be frank, I’m using yogurt as my platform to talk about food in general, advocating that people take the time to read and understand ingredient lists. And if you don’t like what you see--especially if you don’t understand what you’re reading--its time to do the research to figure out what you are putting into your body for your health’s sake. I guarantee you can make a better version at home most of the time, and not only will it taste good, you know it will have real ingredients, and generate less garbage.
In my belief, food is best when it is the way that the Creator designed it: whole, simple, unrefined. If I believe that the Father is a good designer (I do) then things He designed should work best when they are the way He made them. Once you start refining ingredients beyond their natural scope, I see no real long-term benefit in using them--the design has been shattered and forced into shapes its not supposed to be. That’s why I think our natural bodies respond so negatively to these unnatural ingredients: they were never designed to process them!
So what are your thoughts? Do you read food labels? What additives do you try to avoid?
We are a husband and wife who are trying to live simply. We are learning much as we transition from life in the city to life in the country. Come along with us, and maybe you can also learn a thing or two as well.
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