Icelandic Skyr Is Coming for Greek Yogurt

Now that Chobani has conquered the yogurt category, its competitors are trying to make an even healthier health food.
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To the uninitiated, skyr is like yogurt but thicker and more textured—it won't fall off the spoon if you flip it over. In its quest to be the new Curdled Dairy Queen, Siggi's, a company that makes Icelandic-style skyr, wants to get the word out that Greek yogurt makers cram their tiny containers full of sugar:

"Everything's a lie and a racket!" one passer-by in the company's new video exclaims.

This commercial, too, is a little misleading: A 5.3 oz container of plain Siggi's has 4 grams of sugar, just like a 5.3 oz container of plain Chobani, the best-selling Greek yogurt variety. (The flavored varieties of Chobani, however, have more sugar than the flavored varieties of Siggi's by about five grams.)

Factual niggling aside, this campaign is interesting for two reasons:

First, it shows that once food manufacturers notice that health-conscious consumers have seized on a certain metric of a given "health food" category, the competition becomes about outshining the others in that dimension, no matter how silly the result.

Witness, this 1987 commercial in which a man's coworkers all swoop by to tell him that "Fiber One has more fiber" than his All-Bran:

Woo hoo fiber!

Greek yogurt tried a similar tack, weaseling in past regular yogurt ("c'est si bon") on both its purported exoticism—one commercial featured real Greeks eating yogurt-topped granola bars—and, of course, on its health claims. In one ad, John Stamos (a Grecian!) eats frozen Greek yogurt and brags to his angry commercial wife about how much protein it contains.

In the five years leading up to 2011, sales of Greek yogurt grew 2500 percent. Now yogurtiers are ready for yogurt-eaters to move on to an even fancier alternative.

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Second, this suggests that sugar is the new fat, when it comes to scary food advertising. The renewed focus on sugar in recent years has combined with the debunking of the dangers of fat to create a new bogeyman for health-aware people (perhaps rightfully so.)

Another man in the Siggi's ad exclaims that Greek yogurt must be like "ice cream on steroids."

It's good to be aware of added sugars, and Chobani has as much as a fudge bar. (In fact, there's currently a Seinfeldian lawsuit to this effect involving Chobani.) But let's not get carried away. America's favorite snack item, Ritz crackers, have far more carbs than a plain Chobani—except the latter contains a ton of protein and little or no fat. 

Saying Chobani has more sugar than Siggi's is like saying an Oreo has more sugar than a banana. Of course it does, because a flavor like Chobani's Vanilla Chocolate Chunk is meant to be sweet. I, personally, like the tangy sourness of Siggi's. But I was also raised on Russian tvorog, which one makes by boiling buttermilk and then letting the curds just hang out in the kitchen for a while. But not everyone likes a pungent kick in the mouth with their dessert.

For what it's worth, there's no evidence that either skyr or Greek yogurt are healthier than the regular kind. The reason Yoplait is thinner than the other two is that it includes the whey, the liquid part of curdled milk. The whey means it has more calcium

Siggi's is also more expensive than Chobani, and it's largely only available in Target and Whole Foods. So if you live in Middle America, you may have to wait for skyr to become more ubiquitous before making the switch. Of course, by then we'll all be eating Mongolian yak cheese.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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