Greek Yogurt: All the Cool Kids Are Doing It

A god among mid-morning snacks, Greek yogurt has taken over The Atlantic offices. In the interest of our colleagues' health, we take a closer look at modern yogurt culture. Yes, culture.

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Health editor Jim Hamblin caused a nostalgia-fest this morning when he walked in eating yogurt from a tube. But as long as it's been since most of us have seen Go-Gurt, pretty much any sort of "regular" yogurt has become a rarity in the break room fridge (and we're not above publicly shaming those who haven't yet made the shift). It's not just us, by any means -- sales in the U.S. have doubled to $1.6 billion in the past five years.

yogurt2bwmain.jpgDeputy Editor J.J. Gould

Greek yogurt isn't just the number one coolest thing to eat; it's pretty much a superfood. I use that term sparingly and reluctantly, but sure, superfood. Compared to regular yogurt, Greek has more protein, fewer carbs, and less sodium. (It does have less calcium and isn't as cheap, but that's basically all that's against it.)

It's also definitely healthier than sour cream, butter, mayonnaise, and cream cheese, for which its texture makes it a viable substitute in recipes.

Greek yogurt doesn't necessarily contain more probiotics than other varieties, but its other advantages make it the best way to get this "good bacteria." Consuming the right types of probiotics in the right amounts can make your digestive system run more smoothly and decrease the occurrence of yeast infections in women. They may even turn out to enhance virility: mice who eat yogurt have shinier coats and larger testicles.

Health benefits aside, perhaps the most convincing case for Greek yogurt is its taste. As Derek Thompson wrote last year when accounting for its soaring popularity:

"The taste of Greek yogurt is thick, like scooping avocado out of its skin. Sometimes I eat it for breakfast. I couldn't eat fruit-on-the-bottom Dannon yogurt for breakfast, because that stuff can have the consistency of melted ice cream and after I eat a cup, I feel like I've had a big glass of water."

There's no reason to think that Greek yogurt hasn't earned its place at the top. There are, however, some things threatening to tarnish its image, and we at Atlantic Health would be remiss not to point them out:

Fat: The guilt-free angle only holds for the low-fat and fat-free versions, which are still much thicker and creamier than regular yogurt. "Classic" Fage is presumably even more decadent-tasting than Fage 0%, but at the cost of 10g of fat -- and it doesn't even contain any extra protein.

Sugar: Not everyone is a fan of Greek yogurt's tart flavor. But if you add too much sweetener, the calorie count will rise, of course. So consider the big picture.While the fruit flavors in which most Greek yogurts come sound more wholesome than chocolate or other dessert-flavored yogurts, they're still basically pure sugar. Non-fat blueberry Chobani, as one example, has 20g of sugar in a serving.

Frozen yogurt: The popularity of Greek yogurt has extended to dessert, with the now-ubiquitous frozen yogurt shops offering plenty of tart and fruity Greeks. Plain frozen yogurt can be just as healthy as the refrigerated type: Pinkberry's original flavor, for example, has 100 calories and no fat. But in order to consume only one serving size, you need to order a mini. Self-serve stores, which charge by the ounce, are motivated to get you to eat a lot more than that -- the bucket-sized cups they provide look pitifully empty when filled with a reasonable amount of yogurt.

When piled high with toppings, of course, frozen yogurt begins to look more like any other dessert. And not all frozen yogurts are created equal: Ben & Jerry's jumped on the bandwagon with its new Greek flavors, but its Banana Peanut Butter flavor contains 8g of fat.

Imposters: When I was still on a college meal plan, I was a Fage fanatic. On my new, post-grad salary, I've been cutting corners with Yoplait. Even though I was well aware of its inferior taste, I was still devastated to find out I haven't been eating "real" Greek yogurt -- the stuff I've been buying has been artificially thickened instead of strained the traditional way. This is mostly just a matter of semantics, but it's made purists mad enough to initiate a class action lawsuit against Yoplait. As Chobani's founder, a staunch defender of Greek yogurt's brand identity, told NPR:

"There's no protection around it. You could make a bowl of macaroni, call it Greek yogurt, and nobody could do anything to you. Which is sad!"

Sad, indeed. Make sure that your yogurt is everything it claims to be. Added thickeners are bad enough -- if everyone's daily Greek yogurt(s) actually turned out to be cheeseburgers, we would have an office crisis.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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