Yogurt is such a common breakfast food that the question "Is yogurt good for you?" barely crosses anyone's mind. And sure, when you compare yogurt to a sugary coffee drink or a dozen donuts, it really does seem like the healthier breakfast option — but even yogurt has limited health benefits if you're not buying the right kind.
In a September 2018 study published in the BMJ, researchers looked at more than 900 different yogurt products, which they split into eight categories: children’s, dairy alternatives, dessert, drinks, fruit, flavored, natural/Greek style, and organic. Sugar accounted for the majority of the calories in each yogurt for every category but natural/Greek style.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that if you add lots of sugary toppings to your yogurt — like cookie crumbles and candy pieces — your “healthy” breakfast becomes anything but. However, we were surprised to learn that organic yogurt, which touts itself as being better for you, isn't all that healthy either. The median sugar content in organic yogurt was 13.1 grams per serving, but sugar content in some brands went as high as 17 grams per serving.
Now, that’s not to say that yogurt doesn’t have any health benefits. Yogurt is a good source of calcium and protein, but it’s the live cultures inside the yogurt that really excite nutrition experts. Some research suggests that having a low number of bacterial strains in your body puts you at risk for conditions like type 2 diabetes, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic inflammatory diseases, according to Harvard T.H. Chan’s School of Public Health. Adding yogurt to your diet can increase the amounts of good bacteria in your system to prevent these health risks.
J. Bernadette Moore, PhD, one of the authors of the aforementioned study, was inspired to look into the sugar content of store-bought yogurts after the UK government listed it as one of the top 10 sources of sugar for children. Dr. Moore, an associate professor at the University of Leeds’ School of Food Science and Nutrition, looked at the nutrition facts on her daughter’s yogurt and was stunned by what she saw. "I discovered that for my young daughter's favorite yogurt, sugar accounted for 60 percent of the calories," she said.
Even though she and her team conducted their research in the UK, Moore believes a study of yogurt in US grocery stores would produce similar results. "What is worrisome is that yogurt, as a perceived 'healthy food,’ may be an unrecognized source of free/added sugars in the diet," the researchers wrote in their study.
The World Health Organization recommends between 25 and 50 grams of sugar per day for an adult — a number many consumers blow by, according to Lindsay Moyer, who works at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, DC. The problem, according to Moyer, is that most people aren’t aware of how much sugar they’re getting in one day. For example, eating a yogurt with candy mix-ins for breakfast could get you to that 25 grams of sugar before you’ve even really started your day. Now add in all the sugars from a glass of orange juice, a brownie left over from a meeting at work, and dessert after dinner. It’s not hard to see how people end the day well over their daily suggested sugar intake.
So what can you do to ensure you’re not unknowingly ingesting unnecessary sugars? Moore and her daughter have started adding in fresh fruit and jams to their natural yogurts to reduce the amount of sugar they consume. When you become more aware of what you’re putting in your mouth, you have a better idea of just how much sugar you’re taking in — and you know where you can make healthier choices.