It hardly seems possible that yet another funky frozen yogurt shop could open its doors. Especially when it's practically spitting distance from a fresh competitor drawing droves of devotees.
But the latest incarnation of the frozen yogurt trend seems to defy standard business logic. These shops, where the decor of bright, happy hues is matched only by the spray of toppings—kiwi! Fruity Pebbles! something random and chewy!— has whet consumers' appetites for indulgent fun. Especially when that fun is packaged in a way that promises to deliver a yummy, guiltless treat and, in some cases, health benefits like better immunity and digestion.
So, is the new yogurt healthy? Or are we all just lining up for candy like kids on Halloween? Well, that depends.
"I think there's a health halo around frozen yogurt," and that's helping to market the trend, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of the food research and consulting firm Technomic. "I think there's some truth to it," he says, but warned that excessive portions and toppings derail the benefit.
Sticking to reasonable portions is, of course, critical to a healthy diet. And that reasoning clearly applies to the frozen yogurt trend as shops often feature self-serve machines and are accompanied by a smorgasbord of sugary toppings.
Here's the strategy taken by David Katz, a nutrition expert and clinical instructor of medicine at Yale University, when visiting the Peachy Keen fro-yo shop where his daughter works: "I tend to take less yogurt (usually tart or fat-free fruit), and lots of fresh fruit," Katz writes in an email to U.S. News. "If the dose is moderate, [it makes] a nice treat—but overindulgence could certainly come back to haunt you in the mirror!"
Still, the current trend in frozen yogurt, which features tart and so-called "natural" flavors and, now, the wildly popular Greek yogurt, offers some healthier dessert options.
In fact, today's frozen yogurt trend is something of a reclamation. Rather than the sweet fro-yo of 20 years ago, which aimed to mimic ice cream, "what you're seeing right now is more about the yogurt—a product that is focused on delivering that tart yogurt flavor, and it's also about a product that's healthier," says Elise Cortina Fennig, spokesperson for the National Yogurt Association.
Whatever it is, it's working. Between the fall of 2010 and the fall of 2011, the number of retail frozen yogurt shops in this country climbed from 3,624 to 4,765—a 31 percent spike. According to Tristano, sales reported by frozen dessert shops, in general, have hovered at $6 billion per year, but "consumers have just shifted from ice cream to frozen yogurt." Frozen yogurt chains, in fact, have experienced some of the highest growth of any of the chains he tracks.
Novelty accounts for part of the frozen yogurt craze, says Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations for The Dannon Company, which now owns YoCream, a market leader. (Neuwirth, incidentally, says he passed two frozen yogurt shops within three blocks of New York's Upper East Side while speaking with U.S. News.) But another factor is economic. Times of high unemployment beget a rise in entrepreneurship, and frozen yogurt shops are largely a band of small businesses, he says.
The range of offerings available in these shops makes any blanket judgment hard to support, except for this one—that to be called yogurt, Fennig says it must contain two strains of beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics: streptococcus thermophilus and lactobacillus bulgaricus, which produce lactase, easing digestion for those who are lactose intolerant. Her group is pressing the Food and Drug Administration to codify a standard of identity for yogurt, but until then, it has created its own seal of approval, awarded to frozen yogurt with 10 million cultures per gram at the time of manufacturing, a threshold that offers digestive benefits, Fennig explains. However, she says that most of their approved frozen yogurt shops meet the association's more rigorous requirements for more potent cup yogurt—at 100 million cultures per gram.
[See: Unusual Uses for Avocados.]
But the extent to which these bacteria support your health is another question.
"Probiotics are very strain-specific in their benefits," says Lisa Brown, assistant professor of nutrition at Simmons College in Boston. "It's really hard to say that [frozen yogurt] will translate the same way fermented foods do in terms of probiotic benefit."
Still, Brown approves of many of the new frozen-yogurt options, noting that tart flavors slow down the release of sugar in the body, which stabilizes appetite and energy levels. Greek yogurts, in particular, are a good bet, she says, due to concentrated protein, which makes them creamy, yet they are low in fat and carbohydrates. (In fact, a lot of folks like to simply freeze their own cup of Greek yogurt for a healthy dessert.)
The key, of course, is to note the nutrition facts. Take, for example, a half-cup of Ben & Jerry's Banana Peanut Butter Greek Frozen Yogurt, which has 210 calories and 8 grams of fat, when compared with Yocream's nonfat Greek frozen yogurt, which has, at most, 100 calories per half-cup and, as mentioned, no fat. A half-cup of YoCream's "cake batter," the company's No. 1 flavor— which it says has knocked vanilla out of first place for the first time in 25 years—has 130 calories and 3 grams of fat. Whatever you choose, Brown says it's "reasonable" for treats to account for 10 percent of your daily caloric intake. Assuming you follow a 2,000-calorie diet, you don't want more than 200 calories taken up by fro-yo.
Bottom line: Watch your portions and take care with toppings.
And another tip from Brown: go with the sprinkles. They're a happy, low-calorie way to round out your dessert, and not you. "Rainbow sprinkles make everything look fun."
[See: Unusual Uses for Greek Yogurt.]