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How to Decipher the Yogurt Aisle—Finding Truly Healthy, Weight-loss Options

Selecting Yogurt

Interested in learning more? Check out the ACE Certified News article on The Truth Behind the Greek Yogurt Craze

Yogurt, anyone? Here are your choices: low-fat, organic, Greek, light, sugar free, plain, with fruit and non-fat. Huh? With so many "supposedly" healthy choices, picking a yogurt that actually delivers on its promise is no easy task.

When put to the test, San Diego-based registered dietician, Michelle Murphy Zive—who oversees two large health projects at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) that focus on childhood obesity prevention and access to healthy foods—found that a company’s advertising claims don’t necessarily correspond with the nutritional facts.

Zive’s No. 1 tip for consumers: read the nutrition label and know what to look for. A truly healthy yogurt is low in fat and sugar, high in protein and made with good bacteria. Once you find your tasty preference, eat often. Studies show that yogurt is a great snack to promote weight loss while offering numerous health benefits. The active cultures in yogurt can help with lactose intolerance, constipation, diarrhea, H. pylori infection, inflammatory bowel disease and boost your immune system.

Greek Yogurt Craze

If you’re buying into the Greek yogurt craze, you will be happy to know that this European favorite tends to be healthier than traditional American-style yogurts. Strained multiple times, it takes three pounds of milk to make one pound of Greek yogurt, which makes Greek more nutritious. Compared to American-style yogurt, Greek yogurt also tends to be lower in sugar and fat and higher in protein, which fills you up longer. For people who are trying to lose weight, this snack is ideal for keeping your hunger at bay.

To help you sort out a yogurt aisle near you, we’ve compared several top brands:

Chobani Nonfat, plain Greek yogurt

At 100 calories per 6 oz. container, 7 grams of sugar, zero fat and 18 grams of protein (or 36 percent of your daily value) this yogurt is an excellent choice for health and weight-conscious consumers. It’s packed with nutrients, and the high protein will keep you satisfied for hours.

Chobani Nonfat Greek Yogurt with black cherries at the bottom  

When you mix Greek sensibility with American sweetness, you’ll always end up with more calories. Added “juice concentrate" - in this case “cherry juice concentrate” - translates into more sugar, even if it is fruit sugar (fructose). At 21 grams, this yogurt has three times the sugar than its plain alternative. It also has 50 percent more calories. Zive’s recommendation? Buy plain and add fresh or frozen fruit.

Fage Total 0%

Fage, made by the Greek Dairy Company, was the first Greek yogurt company to push its way into the U.S. market. It now faces stiff competition from Chobani and others. At 100 calories per 6-oz. serving, 7 grams of sugar, 0 fat and 18 grams of protein, the Fage Total 0% fits the bill for the traditional creamy yogurt popular in Greece, Turkey and the Middle East. The preference for health-conscious consumers may come down to taste.

Fage Honey

Honey is good for you, right? Yes, but sweet equals sugar.

Fage Honey packs 170 calories per 5.3-oz container, 0 fat, 13 grams of protein and a whopping 29 grams of sugar. That is almost twice the calories of Fage Total 0% and more than four times the sugar with less protein.

If you’re trying to lose weight, watch for added sugar. Consider this: honey has 3.8 grams of "added sugar" per teaspoon, or more sweetness than maple syrup, which packs 2.8 grams of sugar per teaspoon, but less than table sugar, which packs 4.7 grams of sugar per teaspoon.

Yoplait Banana Cream 99 Percent Fat-Free

Ninety-nine percent fat-free? That sounds great! Well, look closer and you’ll find that it’s a trick companies use to water down the numbers—literally.

The number calculates fat as a percentage of weight (milk is mostly water) or milk-fat by weight. If you add water, you will increase the weight, but keep the fat constant. This yogurt packs 170 calories, 15 calories from fat (5 percent from saturated fat), a whopping 26 grams of sugar and only 5 grams of protein. Also, made with skim milk or low-fat milk (1 percent milk-fat), this yogurt is healthier than those made with “reduced-fat” milk (2 percent milk-fat) and whole-milk (3.5 percent milk-fat), but still packs more calories than non-fat milk.

Dannon Light & Fit

Who doesn’t want to be light and fit?

At 80 calories per 6 oz., this yogurt certainly is light in calories. And with 11 grams of sugar, it’s also quite fit for an American-style yogurt. But with merely 5 grams of protein, this snack will not satisfy your hunger for long. Take a closer look at the label and you’ll see ingredients like “phenylalanine,” which is a chemical, and “aspartame,” which is an artificial sweetener.

Most “light” yogurts are made with artificial sweeteners, some of which have been linked to health problems. Aspartame can cause headaches in some people. As a general rule, the more chemicals you find in yogurt—or any food for that matter—the less healthy it is, according to Zive.

Dannon All Natural Vanilla Yogurt

Health-conscious consumers are often drawn to products that promise to be “all natural” and “organic.” But the food labels will reveal the truth.

This yogurt has 150 calories per 6-oz. serving and 25 fat calories (12 percent total), including 1.5 grams of saturated fat.

The government recommends limiting total fat to 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories. Consuming two Dannon All Natural Vanilla Yogurts would get you close to the daily maximum. Also, at 25 grams of sugar, this yogurt is past the limit for recommended daily intake of sugar for adult women, which is five teaspoons, or 20 grams of sugar per day. For adult men, the daily recommended sugar intake is nine teaspoons, or 36 grams daily; and for children, it’s three teaspoons (12 grams per day).

The Bottom Line

Even if it sounds healthy, check the nutrition label to be sure.

Low-fat often really means high in sugar. Low in sugar often means high in fat, and if it’s light, it’s likely sweetened artificially. Added fruit translates into more sugar as well.

If you like it sweet, why not add your own fresh fruit and a couple of tablespoons of nuts, such as whole almonds or walnuts? A recent study showed that the extra protein and fiber in nuts increase feelings of satiety and delay gastric emptying—two ways to eat less.

Also, most Americans consume too much sugar. Zive says we can actually “train our bodies” to crave less sugar by cutting back on our overall sugar consumption. Start by eating fewer foods with added sugar and consume more foods with naturally-occurring sugars, such as fruit and low-fat dairy, instead.

Non-fat, plain Greek yogurt is a great start to healthier eating. Couple this by adding a walk, a bike ride or any other physical activity into your daily routine and you’re on your way to overall better health and well-being.

Full Disclosure: Chobani is one of the sponsors of the 2011 ACE Fitness Symposium. Learn more about the 2011 ACE Fitness Symposium.


Marion Webb is the writer and editor for the American Council on Exercise and is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and an ACE-certified Group Fitness Instructor. To leave comments, please share them below. For specific fitness-related story ideas, please e-mail her directly at marion.webb@acefitness.org.


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