Non-profit Decodes the Sticky Mess in the Yogurt Wars Between Chobani, Yoplait, and Dannon

January 14th, 2016

Report Helps Identify Which Yogurts are Health Food Versus Junk Food


report, Culture Wars: How the Food Giants Turned Yogurt, a Health Food, into Junk Food, issued by The Cornucopia Institute, accuses Dannon, Yoplait, Chobani, and other major marketers of misleading parents, who are looking for healthier foods for their families, into purchasing yogurts loaded with sugar and containing a myriad of questionably safe artificial sweeteners, colors, and emulsifiers.

The group alleges that agribusiness, in their marketing approach, has capitalized on yogurt’s historic, well-deserved healthful reputation, while simultaneously adulterating the product to gain competitive advantage and popular appeal.

This week, General Mills (owner of Yoplait) sued Chobani in reaction to their national ad campaign that attacks Dannon and Yoplait for their use of artificial sweeteners and preservatives.

The Cornucopia Institute’s study holds yogurt to an even higher standard, touting the health benefits of yogurt that is organically certified. “Consumers have better choices than Chobani, Yoplait, and Dannon. One needs to look no further than the many organic brands in our study,” said Mark A. Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute. “At one point, Chobani publically discussed releasing an organic option to provide consumers with an even better choice, but to our knowledge this has never happened.”

In addition to The Cornucopia Institute’s comprehensive report on the yogurt industry, they also released an associated buyer’s guide rating 114 brands and separating the truly healthy options from those that would be found on any dietitian’s shortlist of foods to avoid.

“What is most egregious about our findings, and related to the current war of words in the yogurt industry,” said Kastel, “is the marketing employed by many of the largest agribusinesses, selling junk food masquerading as health food, mostly aimed at parents, who are hoping to provide their children an alternative, more nutritious snack.  In some cases, they might as well be serving their children soda pop or a candy bar with a glass of milk on the side.”

At the same time General Mills and Dannon are complaining about the accuracy of Chobani’s current ad campaign, Cornucopia found that Chobani is misrepresenting their products as “the only 100 calorie yogurt sweetened naturally.” Actually, the sweeteners they use, stevia leaf extract and monkfruit extract, could be considered synthetic, subject to an unnatural extraction process utilizing a myriad of processing agents.

“There are, in fact, nationally distributed certified organic brands, such as Stonyfield (Groupe Danone) and Wallaby (WhiteWave), that do not use these artificial ingredients as well,” said Kastel.

While Chobani and competing brands square off over artificial sweeteners and synthetic preservatives, Cornucopia’s report reveals that some of the flavored varieties on the market (strawberry, for example) of certain brands contain no actual fruit, and include total sugars that rival those in candy bars.

Alternatively, some yogurt is sweetened artificially with such substances as aspartame (also marketed as NutraSweet®), rather than with sugar.

According to Dr. Qing Yang, a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University, “A rise in the percent of the population who are obese coincides with the increase in the widespread use of non-caloric artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose.” The use of aspartame is controversial and has been linked to brain tumors and neurological diseases in laboratory animals.

Non-caloric sweeteners are not the only controversial materials found in many popular brands of yogurt. Another, carrageenan, a bioactive ingredient derived from seaweed, has been linked in published research to serious gastrointestinal inflammation and disease. Some of the yogurts specifically aimed at young children, in squeezable tubes, are among those containing carrageenan.

In addition, yogurt manufacturers add artificial colors, which have been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. Some manufacturers have even started adding nanoparticles, currently unregulated, which interact with cells in unknown ways.

YogurtReportCoverCornucopia’s report also looked at the industry’s labeling campaign: Live and Active Cultures, which purportedly assures a high level of healthful probiotics, microorganisms thought to improve digestion in the intestinal tract. Cornucopia tested yogurt purchased directly from the dairy cases, in grocery stores, rather than the industry’s practice of testing at the factory prior to shipment.

The report’s findings revealed that many of the top-rated organic brands in Cornucopia’s buyer’s guide — that are not part of the industry’s Live and Active Cultures marketing campaign — actually contain higher levels of beneficial bacteria than some of the most popular brands displaying the seal.

“Our laboratory analysis also showed that there are nutritional benefits to eating whole milk, organic yogurt,” said Dr. Linley Dixon, one of Cornucopia’s researchers.

The Cornucopia study, consistent with other recent peer-reviewed and published findings, found that organic yogurt had more advantageous ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids and higher levels of beneficial fats, including conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), than conventional yogurt.

Finally, Cornucopia looked at the comparative costs of yogurt on the market. The report found that many organic yogurts can often be purchased for less, on a price-per-ounce basis, than conventional yogurts. This price comparison includes many of the popular Greek styles and heavily processed products, in special packaging, that are marketed to children, like Yoplait’s Go-Gurt and Dannon’s Danimals, with their long lists of artificial ingredients.

The healthiest choices in Cornucopia’s study include yogurts with a short list of ingredients, including organic milk and live cultures — with limited amounts of added organic fruit or unrefined sweeteners such as maple syrup.

“The good news is that there are wonderful yogurt options in the dairy cooler,” Kastel added.  “We hope that yogurt lovers will use our report and buyer’s guide to choose the very safest and most nutritious products for their families, especially for children.”


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