Greek yogurt is one of those foods that has acquired what marketers call a “health halo,” meaning consumers often believe it offers health benefits — whether or not it really does. As a nutritionist myself, I’ve been purchasing Greek over regular yogurt for years; if I’m honest, it hasn’t been for any well-defined dietary reason. True, I enjoy Greek yogurt’s extra-creamy thickness and have a notion that its high protein content helps fill in any macronutrient gaps in my flexitarian diet. But beyond these preferences, the justifications for my choice are embarrassingly vague. It’s time to dig a little deeper to find out: Is Greek yogurt actually healthier than the conventional variety?
A Look at the Nutrients
Upon close inspection, both Greek and regular yogurts have plenty to offer, nutritionally speaking. Both varieties contain the probiotics that have such a positive impact on the all-important gut microbiome. Both can be purchased with varying amounts of fat, from none at all to the full-fat, stick-to-your-ribs kind. (Though when fat is included, Greek yogurt does tend to have more total grams than regular.) As for the most basic measure of nutritional comparison — number of calories — differences also depend more on the individual product than whether it’s Greek or not.
Probably the most famous dividing line between these dairy rivals (and the driving force behind many consumers’ choices) is Greek yogurt’s much-touted status as a protein powerhouse — a reputation it does deserve. One eight-ounce serving of Greek yogurt offers up around 20-25 grams of protein, while regular yogurt typically contains around 13-14 grams. Then again, how much protein do we really need? Though it’s a necessary macronutrient that serves essential functions in the body, it’s not something most Americans need to actively try to consume more of. Eating too much may actually pose problems for the heart, liver, and kidneys and increase cancer risk. (For reference, the Daily Value is 50 grams of protein per day, or 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.) If you already eat a high-protein diet, adding more may not be in your best interest.
The protein debate aside, these two yogurts have other, lesser-known differences. The straining process that gives Greek yogurt its signature thickness removes more than just water — it also takes away a significant amount of calcium. While one cup of Greek yogurt provides about 250 milligrams of calcium (25 percent of your Daily Value), the same amount of regular yogurt packs about twice that, meaning you can knock out half your day’s calcium needs with just one cup. On the other hand, Greek yogurt has a hidden bonus for carb counters: “Greek yogurt is lower in carbohydrates — six grams versus 13 grams,” says Terri Verason, MS, RDN, Vice President of Nutrition Education for the Dairy Council of Arizona. “For those people looking to reduce carb intake, Greek yogurt would be a better choice.”
Most of us want to know that our food not only promotes good physical health but helps maintain the health of the planet too. In recent years, concerns about the environmental impact of Greek yogurt’s production have led some consumers to avoid it. Reports have circulated that the whey strained off of Greek yogurt has entered waterways near production plants. According to Modern Farmer, the decomposition of this acidic waste product “is toxic to the natural environment, robbing oxygen from streams and rivers.” The long-term consequence? Destruction of aquatic life in these waters. While this issue may not change Greek yogurt’s dietary benefits, the health of the Earth is no small consideration.
So should you steer clear of Greek yogurt for environmental reasons? Verason doesn’t think so. “Dairy farms and dairy food plants continually work on ways to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly and have been doing so for decades,” she says. In fact, some have come up with rather interesting ways to make all that whey go away. “Some separate out the lactose and whey protein, dry these components into powders, and sell them as ingredients for a variety of products. Other companies sell the liquid whey back to the dairy farm to use as part of the feed for animals or to use in their ‘methane digester’ to generate electricity to power the farm and nearby neighborhoods.”
And One More Thing…
In all of these health considerations, we’re assuming we’re talking about plain yogurt, without added sugar from flavoring. Perhaps the strongest measure for healthy yogurt, then, comes from what (and how much) has been added to it. The Standard American Diet — what nutritionists aptly call “SAD” — is notoriously sugar-excessive, and too much of the sweet stuff has been associated with all manner of health concerns, from obesity to heart disease. So when you choose yogurt, be sure to check and compare labels for sugar content. Other than that, Verason encourages, “Both regular and Greek yogurt are packed with nutrients and easily fit into a healthy, balanced diet. It’s really a matter of preference.”
Need some recipe inspo for your yogurt of choice? Check out Brit + Co’s Pinterest board “To Eat”!
(Photos via Getty)