Move over, regular yogurt. Going Greek is in, and this exotic option has elbowed its way onto refrigerator shelves everywhere. Most give a big thumbs up to its taste—tangier and less sweet, as well as creamier—but is it healthier than its conventional counterpart?
First, to be clear: Both Greek and regular yogurt, in their plain, nonfat or low-fat forms, can be part of a healthful diet. They're low in calories and packed with calcium and live bacterial cultures. But our Mediterranean friend—which is strained extensively to remove much of the liquid whey, lactose, and sugar, giving it its thick consistency—does have an undeniable edge. In roughly the same amount of calories, it can pack up to double the protein, while cutting sugar content by half. Those are "two things dietitians love," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian and author of The Flexitarian Diet. "For someone who wants the creamier texture, a little bit of a protein edge, and a sugar decrease, going Greek is definitely not all hype." And it's really got a following: In the past five years, Greek yogurt sales nationwide have skyrocketed, likely because it satisfies consumers' needs for health, convenience, and taste, according to Nielsen, a global marketing and advertising research company.
Here's a closer look at how the two stack up nutrition-wise.
Protein. Greek yogurt is high in protein, which helps promote fullness. A typical 6-ounce serving contains 15 to 20 grams, the amount in 2 to 3 ounces of lean meat. That makes it particularly appealing to vegetarians, who sometimes struggle to get enough of the nutrient. An identical serving of regular yogurt, on the other hand, provides just 9 grams, meaning you may feel hunger pangs sooner.
Carbohydrates. Going Greek is a smart choice for low-carb dieters. It contains roughly half the carbs as the regular kind—5 to 8 grams per serving compared with 13 to 17. Plus, the straining process removes some of the milk sugar, lactose, making Greek yogurt less likely to upset the lactose-intolerant. Remember, however, that "both types of yogurt can contain high amounts of carbs if they're sweetened with sugar or another sweetening agent," says Kari Hartel, a Missouri-based registered dietitian. "No matter which type you choose, opt for yogurt with less added sugar."
Fat. Be wary of Greek yogurt's fat content. In just 7 ounces, Fage's full-fat Greek yogurt packs 16 grams of saturated fat—or 80 percent of your total daily allowance if you're on a 2,000-calorie diet. (That's more than in three Snickers bars.) Dannon's regular full-fat yogurt has 5 grams of saturated fat in an 8-ounce serving. Saturated fat raises total and "bad" LDL cholesterol levels, increasing the risk for heart disease. Read nutrition labels carefully. If you're going Greek, stick to low-fat and fat-free versions.
Sodium. A serving of Greek yogurt averages 50 milligrams of sodium—about half the amount in most brands of the regular kind. (Low-sodium versions of regular yogurt are available.) Too much salt can boost blood pressure and increase the risk of other heart problems. The federal government's 2010 Dietary Guidelines urge Americans to cap sodium at 2,300 milligrams a day, or 1,500 milligrams if they're older than 50, African-American, or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.
Calcium. Regular yogurt provides 30 percent of the federal government's recommended daily amount. Greek yogurt loses some of its calcium through the straining process, but still packs a wallop. A 6-ounce cup typically supplies about 20 percent of the daily recommendation. If you're still worried about calcium intake, load up on milk, seeds, and almonds, says Sarah Krieger, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Still undecided on which team to join? Compare the labels of Dannon's regular and Greek varieties. (Other popular brands of Greek yogurt include Chobani, and Stonyfield Farm's Oikos.)
Greek (5.3 ounces, nonfat, plain)
- Calories: 80
- Total fat: 0 grams
- Cholesterol: 10 milligrams
- Sodium: 50 milligrams
- Sugar: 6 grams
- Protein: 15 grams
- Calcium: 15 percent on a 2,000-calorie diet
Regular (6 ounces, nonfat, plain)
- Calories: 80
- Total fat: 0 grams
- Cholesterol 5 milligrams
- Sodium: 120 milligrams
- Sugar: 12 grams
- Protein: 9 grams
- Calcium: 30 percent on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Though most experts agree that Greek yogurt has a nutritional edge, both kinds help you lose weight by keeping you full on fewer calories. The key is sticking to plain, nonfat, or low-fat varieties. In a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Harvard researchers found that yogurt can keep help keep age-related weight gain in check. People tended to lose nearly 1 pound every four years if they added a daily serving of yogurt to their diet, probably because of the way bacterial cultures affect our intestines.
If you do opt for Greek yogurt, take advantage of its versatility. Mix it with seasonings like garlic, dill, and parsley to create a unique dip for carrots, celery sticks, or cucumber slices. Toss in some berries or high-fiber granola. You can also substitute Greek yogurt for sour cream on tacos, for example, or for the eggs and oil in baked goods. It's an acceptable replacement for fatty ingredients like cream cheese, mayonnaise, and butter. "Its thick texture makes it an excellent swap for mayonnaise on sandwiches, or in dishes like potato salad, egg salad, pasta salad, and coleslaw," Hartel says. "Since these are comfort foods, it makes it easier to transition to using yogurt in recipes."
[See: Unusual Uses for Greek Yogurt.]
This story was originally reported by Katherine Hobson on April 6, 2009.