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Is it a Yoghurt or a Doughnut?

In December 2011 "The Foods that Make Billions" looked at yoghurt. It raised important issues about the food industry and nutritional questions worthy of further discussion.  Our article on the cereals episode is here.

So let's take a look at whether the yoghurt aisle is really at the forefront of healthy eating, what makes a real yoghurt, and the history of cultured and fermented foods across the World.

Until 1963, yoghurt was very nearly an unknown food in the UK.  Changes in the dairy industry, changes in nutritional ideas and changes in society enabled some clever companies to establish a new demand.

Today, the yoghurt industry is sophisticated, complex and enormous, worth billions worldwide.  But somewhere along the way, good nutritional thinking has largely fallen by the wayside.

When it comes to the "functional food" part of the market, there are two major players – Yakult, and Actimel.  These two brands dominate the probiotic yoghurt drink sector.  They are high on a nutritional pedestal, perceived to be an excellent way to get a daily dose of probiotics. 

Now, for once, we are in total agreement with these big businesses that probiotics can play a significant role in maintaining good health, and we will look at this further on.

But, lets put these two “health drinks” under some nutritional scrutiny.


"Big" Yoghurt!

Yakult Original contains water, skimmed milk (reconstituted), glucose-fructose syrup, sugar, dextrin, flavouring, Lactobacillus casei Shirota. 

It doesn’t look that healthy to us (probiotics aside).  And when we delve a little further, the sugar content is a staggering 9.2g per tiny 65ml bottle!  That’s about the same as you would find in a ring doughnut.  Which begs the question, would you eat a doughnut a day, every day in pursuit of optimum health and vitality?  And how can this nutritional faux pas be so cleverly disguised as a supremely healthy functional food?

Or then there’s Actimel, now the market leader.  The Original contains - yogurt (skimmed milk, skimmed milk concentrate / powder, cream, yogurt cultures), Skimmed milk, Sugar/Liquid sugar (sucrose 7.3%), Dextrose, L.casei Danone culture (Lactobacillus casei DN 114001).

More worrying, the Actimel Orginal Fat Free contains yogurt (skimmed milk, skimmed milk concentrate, yogurt cultures), Water, Skimmed milk, Dextrose, Stabiliser (pectin), Sweeteners (aspartame, acesulfame K), L.casei Danone culture (Lactobacillus casei DN 114001), Vitamin B6, Flavouring, Vitamin D

When it comes to good nutrition, anyone with credibility, and dare we say integrity, will tell you that aspartame has absolutely no place in a healthy diet.  In the States, there are more adverse reaction reports on this toxic substance than any other (80% of complaints).  It only made it onto the market after years of battling with the US Food and Drug Adminstation (FDA). Time and time again, scientists advised the Government to refuse its approval.  But when Donald Rumsfeld became part of Ronald Reagans team, a month later, Aspartame was suddenly approved.  Donald Rumsfeld was the CEO of Searle (the makers of aspartame for 4 years), coincidence perhaps.

Today, aspartame is creeping into more and more products every single day.  Thousands, and thousands of them in fact. Yet another good reason to steer clear of processed foods.

Aside from the headaches and other side effects associated with Aspartame, this is a chemical sweetener widely used in “diet foods”.  But it is no more helpful for dieting than any other processed food. In fact it actually makes people hungrier.  Some researchers point to the fact that the human body responds to the sweet taste that has no calories, by producing insulin even though there is no food there, and then hunger strikes.

But Isn’t Yoghurt Good for Me?

Yes, it most certainly is. But you need to choose well.  Live, natural yoghurt (sugar free), is an excellent addition to the diet that can be enjoyed by all.   Real, live / bio yoghurt is always naturally full of probiotics.

The ingredient list of healthy yoghurt should be short – just milk and cultures.  If you need to sweeten, do it naturally, a small amount of honey for example, raw honey is even better.  Or some fruit is fine now and again.  But do remember that nutritionally, excess fruit means excess sugar.  Traditionally, we only ate small amounts when in season, today, some people eat far too much fruit.  

Do avoid yoghurts that are artificially sweetened, and those that have been heat treated after culturing, heat is an enemy to live cultures. These tend to be the cheap products with a long shelf life.

You might even like to think about making your own - yoghurt makers are freely available these days and starter cultures are available from your local health food store. 

A quick note on low fat yoghurts

Many yoghurts are made from skimmed milk.  In our opinion, these should be avoided. The fat in whole milk does not make people fat, it does not cause heart disease, and it does not raise cholesterol levels.  In fact quite the opposite.  Our Butter or Margarine article issue looks at the saturated fat debate in more depth as does Low Fat is a Fraud.  Spray dried skimmed milk has to be added to the basic skimmed milk to get the right consistency, this creates oxidized cholesterol - definitely not something you want in your diet.  For the dairy industry, there’s a lot of profit in skimmed milk.   It’s better for them to sell off the cream as ice cream and more expensive products, and the remainder (the skimmed milk) in effect as a by product.  It’s an interesting fact that farmers feed pigs skimmed milk to fatten them up!

A quick note on organic yoghurts

If you can, please buy organic yoghurt, the quality and nutrition is far better, you don’t have to deal with the issues of mass fed antibiotics in normal dairy herds, and of course animal welfare is far higher on organic farms.  If you can ensure your yoghurt is from grass fed cows – even better, because the nutrient content is superior!


A quick note on pasteurization

Many of you know we are firm believers in the use of raw milk (available from some local farms and markets, but now also nationwide delivery from  Many people who cannot tolerate pasteurized find that raw suits them beautifully, it is one of natures finest, most complete foods.  It is naturally probiotic, packed with enzymes, and retains far higher levels of the fat soluble vitamins.   Although the pasteurization process is a fierce one that reduces nutrients and damages the protein and enzymes, when it comes to yoghurt, the culturing process naturally reintroduces enzymes. So, the pasteurization problem is not so much of a problem in cultured yoghurt.  And the cultures naturally make yoghurt easier to digest than milk.


The Health Benefits of Probiotics

There are vast amounts of legislation coming out of the EU when it comes to food and supplements .  The Health Claims legislation is just one aspect of this.  Any medicinal claims are already prohibited when it comes to food supplements, and that’s why we don’t make them.   But this is another point on which we agree with the big food companies!  The criteria for establishing a specific health claim under the new regulations is confusing and prohibitively expensive.  And the criteria used is the same as for drugs, but of course foods don’t act in the same way as pharmaceutical medication!

It tells us something when multibillion pound companies such as Danone don’t understand the system and have withdrawn from the process of having an EU committee approve predefined statements of the health benefits of probiotics.  But, we must emphasise that it would be harder to prove probiotic health benefits using a yoghurt drink packed with sugar than it would a traditional food or truly natural probiotic supplement!  And of course, manufacturers are submitting dossiers on proprietary strains, rather than general, noted benefits for live cultures in general.   In addition, with a cost of around £3 million per dossier, strong market leaders are seeing the process as unnecessary when their market position is already established.  More general claims are sufficient to support their brand.

There are vast amounts of evidence when it comes to probiotics most of which the EU will never look at because it doesn’t fall into convenient little boxes such as double blind trials.   They certainly (and very sadly) wont be looking at the diets of the healthiest people in the World for example.  But there are in fact many double blind trials that have shown benefits for probiotics.

The most we can really say legally is that probiotics help two crucial aspects of body chemistry - the digestion and immune system.   Improving these two areas can have significant benefits for every aspect of health and vitality.  It is true that many people feel the benefits of Actimel and others, (many don’t get on with them because of the sugar content, especially those with IBS). That’s why they were confident in offering their “try it for two weeks” campaign.  

Likewise, we are passionate about our unique natural probiotic, and know the nutritional ethos has integrity and effectiveness at its core, and we’re proud to say it’s sugar free!  We know that our customers feel the benefits of Supergeen Probiotic often in very short spaces of time.

Yoghurt is also an excellent source of calcium that’s easy to absorb because of the live cultures. Likewise, its packed with protein that’s also easy to absorb.  Also present are B vitamins and Vitamin K and many others in useful biological amounts.

The History of Live Cultures and Fermented Foods

Yoghurt may have been new to the UK in the 60s, but cultured and fermented products, both dairy, and not, can be found in the diets of many cultures, throughout history.  Some of the healthiest and long lived people in the World include fermented foods as a staple in their diet.  

Some of the non dairy fermented foods well worth adding to your diet are Kombucha Tea, cultured vegetables such as sour pickles, kimchee and sauerkraut, then there’s sourdough and bean ferments such as miso and tempeh.  The simple techniques for fermenting contrast with the complex flavours and vast nutritional benefits.   All fermented foods are naturally probiotic and help to restore the proper balance of bacteria in the digestion. Being raw but fermented, they are packed with the enzymes so missing from the Western diet.  And the vitamin content is increased, and also easier to absorb.  This is only a brief overview of the benefits; Sandor Ellix Katz has written an excellent book on fermentation techniques and benefits.

A quick note on the modern trend for "fermenting" vegetables with vinegar. This is a long way from the traditional way with real salt, and does not offer the same nutritional benefits.

And a quick word on soy. This is now in 80% of processed foods in the West.  It is often said that the Japanese are healthy because of soy, this is a major, and faulty simplification of the Japanese diet.  In fact, they only eat small amounts, and ALWAYS fermented.  We are eating vast quantities of highly processed, non fermented soy.  Not the same thing at all.  It is a denatured food, high in phytic acid and other undesirable anti-nutrients.

But lets get back to cultured dairy...

Even here in the UK we once had our own traditional cultured food - there was a time when buttermilk was a staple in the kitchen.  It was known to be a natural healer.  Buttermilk and whey were the name of the day as a breakfast drink before tea came our way!  And it was a key ingredient in soda bread.  

In "Forgotten Skills of Cooking, The Time-Honoured Ways are the Best" by Cathie Kyle, she says this of buttermilk:

"During turf-cutting, haymaking and harvesting, buttermilk was considered the best drink to give energy, slake the thirst and cure a hangover.  Young girls washed their faces in buttermilk to improve their complexions, while their mothers and grandmothers used it to make bread."

Whilst you can still find some buttermilk in the stores, it is no longer made traditionally.   The old ways used for thousands of years started with raw milk in vats. After 24 hours, the cream comes to the surface and is skimmed off.  This is then fermented for 24 - 36 hrs, then the sour cream, the protein carrying liquid is beaten with wooden utensils, and the buttermilk  is released.  Modern buttermilk uses pasteurized skimmed milk as the base fermented quickly with a laboratory culture, not the same thing at all! You can make your own buttermilk however with whole fat milk and a starter culture.

Butter was also in a cultured form in days gone by from ripened matured cream.  Unsoured butter didn’t come into fashion until the 1940s.  From Principles and Practise of Butter Making  1915:

"The chief object of cream-ripening is to secure the desirable and delicate flavor and aroma which are so characteristic of good butter. These flavoring substances, so far as known, can only be produced by a process of fermentation”

Scotland had it’s very own fermented food known as Bonny Clabber. This is simply raw whole milk left until the milk solids naturally separate from the whey leaving a thick yogurt-like food.  And the whey left over from Clabber, was often used to make Blaand - a traditional fermented drink with quite a high alcohol content.

In other cultures, there are numerous examples of cultured dairy, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle and Far East. 

Kefir is probably the best known cultured product now available in the UK (other than yoghurt).   It comes from the Caucasus region in the Russian mountains.  These people are incredibly strong fit and healthy, and live to a ripe old age.  They guarded the grains needed to make Kefir fiercely.  It is exceptionally rich in nutrients, very easy to digest (and helps the digestion), and a wonderful healer.   It often helps reduce food intolerances. We are looking to bring Kefir drinks and / or the grains to make your own Kefir onto our range.

In Mongolia we have tarag, a sour yogurt.  They also enjoy Sagas is a cultured milk from sheep, goats or yaks soured in wooden buckets, then boiled, and set aside for several months. They use this to make dried curd, cultured sour cream and yoghurt, eaten warm, or frozen, and even in tea.

In India, they use a lot of buttermilk, but it’s known as chaas and flavoured with salt and spices.

Matsoni comes from Russia and gives a smooth pouring yogurt.

In Sweden it’s Filmjölk – slightly sour cultured at room temperature using starter cultures.

Viili is of Scandinavian origin, its considered a national treasure in Finland that uses yeast and lactic acid bacteria.

Piimä is also Scandinavian origin, very sour, and quite like cheese, best for savoury dishes again made with a starter culture.

Matsoni is Eastern European and thoughout history as been thought to prolong life.  It is a mildly sour yoghurt with unique strains of lactic acid bacteria from a starter culture.

So all around the world, in many cultures, we see cultured dairy has been an important staple food, and for very good reason.  Cultured foods are highly recommended in the journey to optimum health, and there are many different types you can enjoy and experiment with.

Related Articles

Health Benefits of fermented foods

More Vitamin D in Free Range Eggs

And an article looking at Calcium


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