Yogurt is one of the few probiotic foods that Americans regularly eat. When we get enough probiotics — friendly bacteria that help to drive out their bad counterparts and some yeasts — we get a health benefit, according to a definition of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations cited by the U.S. Government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
But we get little probiotic benefit from some of the yogurt we eat. Probiotic foods are fermented, and fermented foods don’t survive pasteurization. To get the probiotic benefit from yogurt we have to avoid any that say on the label that they were heat treated after culturing. This means that they were pasteurized, killing the active cultures.
Good yogurts have only active cultures and milk. But unless it’s plain yogurt, it probably has a lot of sugar.
The best yogurts also remove most, if not all, of the whey. Why?
1. When they strain out the whey, the yogurt has less lactose, which is the sugar in milk products. Except for the water in whey, almost all of it is sugar, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database.
2. Whey spikes insulin levels in people with type 2 diabetes and in healthy people, according to a research report last year in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Insulin spikes make us hungry, which may make us gain weight.
If that were not enough for me, I have been checking out a cholesterol-reducing program here in Boulder, Colorado. This program, BalancePoint Health, limits diary products to strained yogurt.
What we call “Greek-style yogurt” is the most commonly available strained yogurt in America. Four brands of Greek-style yogurt are on the market where I live. They have lower levels of carbohydrates — which raise our blood glucose levels and make us gain weight — than other types of yogurt.
The very best Greek-style yogurt is organic. But I’ve found only one brand of Greek-style yogurt that comes from organic farmers who don’t use antibiotics or artificial growth hormones. Stonyfield Farms products this Oikos organic yogurt. It’s readily available at both natural food stores and supermarkets.
Ever since I read The Four Corners Diet, four years ago, I have been eating more and more probiotic food (and less and less other food). Gretchen Becker, my friend and colleague here, wrote that book with Dr. Jack Goldberg and Dr. Karen O’Mara.
In addition to yogurt, they emphasis the probiotic benefits of a drinkable yogurt called kefir, which may be even healthier, because it also contains friendly yeast. Buttermilk can also be probiotic, but only if it’s unpasteurized.
Aside from these dairy products, The Four Corners Diet, also mentions sauerkraut. This is the fermented vegetable that Americans are most likely to know, but unless the sauerkraut is raw (unheated) it won’t be probiotic.
But several recent food imports from Asia are also potent probiotics. These include miso and kimchi. These foods also have a prized place in my probiotic diet. But Greek-style yogurt remains my favorite.
HealthCentral published an earlier version of this article.