Leaving a Sour Taste: Conventional “Yogurt” Masquerades as Health Food While Organic Keeps It Real

April 15th, 2014

This article is based on Cornucopia’s forthcoming yogurt report and scorecard. Find both later this spring on our website.

yogurt-spoon-iStock_000013610937smYogurt, made the traditional way, is one of nature’s many health foods. Milk from organic grass-fed cows, rich in calcium, protein, beneficial fats and other healthy nutrients, is fermented using live cultures, resulting in a wholesome, live food teeming with beneficial microorganisms.

Yet giant food corporations, led by General Mills (Yoplait) and Groupe Danone (Dannon), and now joined by others including Walmart and PepsiCo, have managed to turn this health food into junk food.

Many yogurt products on store shelves today are marketed as healthy, but a close inspection of the ingredients list and a look behind the scenes at how the ingredients are produced—the food’s “fine print”—paint a very different picture.  

Conventional yogurt is produced with milk from cows that are nearly always confined and unable to graze on pasture, and given a feed containing genetically engineered grains. During the making of yogurt, chemical defoamers can legally be added to conventional milk. And with the addition of artificial sweeteners or high doses of sugar and high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, synthetic preservatives and the gut-wrenching thickener carrageenan, many yogurt products are essentially junk food masquerading as health food.

These products are marketed as healthy in part by displaying the “Live and Active Cultures” seal, which supposedly assures a high level of beneficial microorganisms, also known as probiotics.

The seal is found on nearly all conventional yogurt by popular brands owned by corporations such as General Mills and Groupe Danone. No organic yogurt uses the seal. However, testing by The Cornucopia Institute, performed by a food-processing center at a land grant university, revealed that many organic farmstead yogurt products without the Live and Active Cultures seal actually contained higher levels of probiotics than conventional yogurt with the seal.

Consumers tempted to choose products that display the Live and Active Cultures seal over products without it would be wise to reconsider that option.

Cornucopia’s analysis of yogurt also found that many conventional yogurt products on store shelves are not really yogurt at all. The FDA has a “standard of identity” for yogurt that specifies which types of ingredients can and cannot be added to a product labeled and sold as “yogurt.” Artificial sweeteners, preservatives and artificial nutrients other than vitamins A and D do not appear on this FDA list. It is puzzling how any product containing these ingredients can be marketed and sold as “yogurt.” This includes most of the Yoplait, Dannon and other conventional brands, as well as most store label brands, including Walmart’s Great Value.

The addition of these ingredients is not simply a question of legality; it also raises an important question about the healthfulness of the food. Many ingredients found in yogurt may cause adverse health impacts.

For example, research has linked the artificial sweetener aspartame to brain tumors and neurological disease in laboratory animals. Carrageenan, a food thickener, has been shown to promote colon tumors and cause inflammation and digestive disease in laboratory animals. Artificial colors have been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. These ingredients and others commonly found in yogurt have no place in a food marketed as healthy.

girl eating yogurt iStock_000017575748Large

Because it costs more to produce, organic yogurt must be pricier at the check-out, right? Not always. General Mills’ Yoplait Go-Gurt costs more per ounce than many organic brands, despite containing milk from conventional, confined cows fed GE corn and soybeans, rather than milk from grass-fed cows. Go-Gurt, a “fruity” drinkable yogurt in a tube marketed to children, has no actual fruit but tastes and looks like it does due to artificial flavors and colors that require a warning label in other countries. The sweet snack also contains carrageenan, a known gastrointestinal irritant, along with artificial preservatives and synthetic nutrients.

In another example, Chobani, a conventional “Greek” yogurt, was priced higher than five different organic brands at a Boston-area Whole Foods Market. (This was before Whole Foods dropped the brand reportedly for using milk from GE-grain-fed cows while marketing itself as “natural.”)

Yogurt is big business. Consumers spend $73 billion on this food staple globally and $6 billion in the U.S., where individuals eat an average of 13 pounds of the creamy stuff each year. No wonder Big Food dominates this market; corporate players include General Mills (Yoplait), Group Danone (Dannon, Brown Cow, 85% of Stonyfield Farm), PepsiCo (Muller), Dean Foods (Alta Dena, Berkeley Farms, Meadow Gold), WhiteWave (Horizon, Silk), and the Hain Celestial Group (The Greek Gods, Healthy Valley, Earth’s Best).Consult Cornucopia’s forthcoming Yogurt Scorecard to see how these corporate brands stack up against independents such as Nancy’s, Organic Valley, Kalona, Wallaby Organic and Clover Stornetta, and regional brands such as Butterworks Farm, Seven Stars, Straus, Hawthorne Valley Farm and Cedar Summit. (Teaser: Cedar Summit Farm, a 100% grass-fed dairy in Minnesota, produces yogurt with more omega-3 fatty acids and 20 times as much of the healthy fat CLA as Chobani, according to independent lab tests.)

Cornucopia’s forthcoming report outlines the various reasons why people should choose organic yogurt over conventional. The USDA Organic seal on a yogurt product is much more important, in terms of healthfulness, than the Live and Active Cultures seal, the “Greek” label or any other marketing claim or label. In essence, all that is required for making healthy yogurt is organic milk and live cultures.

The Cornucopia Institute encourages eaters and food retailers who buy yogurt to purchase minimally processed, organic brands. By doing so you will be supporting organic farmers, sound environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, and good health for our families and communities.

This story originally appeared in The Cultivator, The Cornucopia Institute’s quarterly print publication available to members and online.

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