Why are we so obsessed with yoghurt?

I have one word for you. Yoghurt.

It’s big and getting bigger. And I’m not exercising any discrimination in my use of the word; I’m talking about yoghurt of all stripes — from Greek to fat-free, from pale, lush and creamy, to technicolour, frozen, sickly sweet and covered with a lewd array of ridiculous toppings. A global trend breathtaking in both size and cynicism.




A couple of years back, UBS Investment Research announced that Greek yoghurt could become the fastest food category growth sector ever. Fast forward to March this year, when The New York Times declared, “Greek yogurt is having its moment”. (As in, “you know Greek yogurt is having its moment when an artisan in Brooklyn is making it from an old family recipe, downtown mixologists are using it in a cocktail and chefs are pairing it with fried brussels sprouts and green cauliflower.”) In April, Time magazine reported that Americans had spent $1.6 billion on Greek yoghurt in the past year.

Greek yoghurt even has a rich-lister. Forbes magazine has dubbed Turkish-born businessman Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani yoghurt, the “Steve Jobs of Yogurt”. Yoghurt has given Ulukaya an estimated $1.1 billion fortune, a “man cave with a pool table and big-screen TV” and the world’s biggest yoghurt factory — a plant in Twin Falls, Idaho, the size of 20 football fields. (Greek yoghurt has little to do with Greece: the label generally describes heavily strained yoghurts; the reduction in whey content results in a thicker, creamier product. Traditionally, it was made with full-cream milk, often goat’s milk; these days, many commercial “Greek yoghurts”, including Chobani, are made with skim milk.)


Neil Perry's yoghurt pannacotta. Image by William Meppem

A quick look at Dairy Australia figures shows that, on average, Australians eat 7.5kg of yoghurt of all types a year — nearly a kilo more than we did six years ago. I lurked for a while near the yoghurt cabinet in my local supermarket one day recently to see if I could spot any Australians carrying that extra kilo. I studied the belly of an old guy as he studied the yoghurts and decided that it was highly likely he was.

He noticed me looking. “This one very good, very popular, the blueberry,” he announced in a thick accent. He directed my attention from his belly to “Dairy Farmers Thick and Creamy Blueberry Fields 98% fat free”. Sure enough, the shelf was nearly empty. As the old guy shuffled off with his Thick and Creamy, another oldie in a pineapple-littered Hawaiian shirt and slippers shuffled in. He grabbed three. It was clear I was missing out on something. I rushed the last two containers to the cash register before I had to fight over them with a pensioner.

At home, I studied the Blueberry Fields label. Turns out, I was missing out on skim milk, milk solids, sugar, water, blueberry (min 5%), cream, halal gelatine, thickener (1442), flavour, acidity regulator (331) and live yogurt cultures (L.Acidophilus, Bifidobacterium and S.Thermophilus). And that sugar? It hits the scales at about 27g per serve. You might as well eat a couple of Tim Tams. One 170g tub of Blueberry Fields has 172 calories; two Tim Tams have only 18 calories more.

Yoghurt surely makes a food marketer’s life easy. It’s the double-action effect: use skim milk and proclaim its “low-fat” benefits then coast to the finishing line on the sense of goodness that the very word “yoghurt” conveys. No wonder then, that in the States, those glorious words “Greek yoghurt” are plastered on processed food from one supermarket aisle to the next.


Greek yoghurt, the real deal

Another word — “bandwagon” — just keeps popping into my head. In Manhattan, some crazy funsters have launched the “Yappy Treats Cart — An All-Natural Frozen Yogurt Dog Treat Co”. And I feel obliged to tell you about one of BuzzFeed’s recent cutesy lists — “18 cats who learned about yogurt the hard way”. Cue a series of disturbed, possibly maltreated cats with their heads stuck in plastic yogurt containers. Whether these are emphatic signs of the rising power of yoghurt in our age, or yet more evidence of the decline of human civilisation, is hard to tell.

Some claim that the yoghurt explosion itself is contributing to the decline of civilisation; that yoghurt has a dark, dark side. According to the new Modern Farmer (an oddly sexy magazine with headlines such as “Which Chicken is Right For You?”, “Who Can Stop These Adorable Pigs?”, “Ode to a Hardware Store”, and “From Malawi to McDonald’s”), the waste-whey by-product of yoghurt is a toxic headache. And strained yoghurt, Greek yoghurt, the one that’s top of the charts, produces more waste than other varieties — more than 150 million gallons in the North-East of the US last year alone, according to Modern Farmer.




I’d venture that there’s an even darker side to the yoghurt explosion. The frozen yoghurt shop explosion. Let’s not mince words: they’re a pox, a blight on our urban landscape and our food culture. Of course, we didn’t start this thing. Blame the Americans, blame New Yorkers. But in New York at least, where opportunists opened outlets with names like Tasti D-Lite, Yorganic and Lorax Frozen Yoghurt, and then added nutty stuff like cheesecake bites and cookie dough to their product, the trend seems to be as over as big facial hair and nerdy glasses.

The backlash has begun: “The Village seems to be the hardest hit,” wrote Kim Velsey in The New York Observer, “its streets a fluorescent wasteland of yogurt shops.” Noted Village Voice writer Mallory Stuchin: “This Dionysian dairy fixation has got to end.” She pointed to actor John Stamos’s appearance in a commercial for Greek yoghurt as the sultry straw that broke the camel’s back.

But I remain disconsolate. The frozen yoghurt shop thing here is only just beginning. “That’s right peeps,” gushes the Yogurtland website, “Yogurtland has arrived.” The American franchise company has six stores up and running, another 12 slated to open by year’s end, 50 more over the next three-five years. A business plan powered by the company’s Kona Coffee Blend perhaps?

And there are more of them: Yogurt World and Bloo Moo (“innocent pure frozen yoghurt”), Igloo Zoo (“Australia’s first culture bar”), Yo-get-it, Tutti-Frutti, Twisted Frozen Yoghurt and Smoothies, The Yoghurt Shop, Cacao Green, Orange Leaf, Crave, WOWCOW and Yogurberry, all churning out loyalty cards, new outlets, health claims and exotic flavours in a mighty lactic frenzy.

I’ll admit it, I’m a late starter. I had my first frozen yoghurt experiences this month. I’m also a spoilsport. The word “ghastly” comes close to describing my feelings about the experiences. I’d rather be strapped to a chair and force fed Mr Whippy soft-serve for a month — with Greensleeves on tinny repeat — than pay these shops a return visit.


Photo by Melanie Faith Dove

Where do I start? Is it their deeply unoriginal, deeply derivative nature, the sense that someone with a few coins to rub together has racked up a healthy tax return or two exploring frozen yoghurt shops in the United States? Is it the idea of all those silly little dishes of toppings sitting there gathering who knows what germs as the hands of the great unwashed hover over them with tongs? Is it that any resemblance to yoghurt flavour is purely an accident? Is it that the idea of sticking jelly lollies, Smarties and chunks of cheap chocolate on the top of yoghurt shouldn’t be deployed anywhere but a bad children’s birthday party? Is it that you just know that any health claims made are nonsense? Is it that you know that sugar is a key ingredient? Is it that it all just screams “GIMMICK!”?



I say, if we’re going to jump on the yoghurt bandwagon, let’s do it properly. When in January, Bon Appétit magazine put yoghurt in the number nine spot of its list of food trends for 2013 it wasn’t talking about low-fat Greek yoghurt or frozen yoghurt from a chain store. It was referring to D.I.Y. yoghurt, homemade yoghurt, the sort of yoghurt that starts with the most expensive milk you can find in the cold cabinet of an organic shop and finishes swaddled in blankets on your kitchen bench.

And if you’re at all interested in trends, you should know that there’s a rather delicious collision of them happening here. OK, so you know yoghurt is a fermented product. It’s the result of a few types of heroic bacteria, or cultures, getting their hooks into the lactose in milk and turning it into lactic acid, which coagulates the liquid. OK, so we’ve established that yoghurt is huge — you also need to know that fermented foods are about to be huge (think yoghurt, plus sauerkraut, kimchi, vinegars, tofu and anything else you care to mention). Remember this name: Sandor Ellix Katz, aka Sandorkraut, a big-moustached guy who has been fermenting since 1993 and is the author of The Art of Fermentation. More on him and the benefits to your health and your gut of eating fermented food another day.

I think Mr Katz, and indeed Matthew Evans, would be impressed with my own fermenting efforts. See, a couple of weeks ago I used Matthew’s recipe to make my own yoghurt. I bought myself my first kitchen thermometer (yeah, I know, what took me so long?). I bought the most luxe, full-cream unhomogenised milk from cosseted cows that I could find at my local Wholefoods House. I bought a little container of plain live yoghurt to use as my starter (you want one that gives the names of the specific cultures — e.g., lactobacillus acidophilus, bifidobacterium and lactobacillus casei). I spent an interminable amount of time sterilising the jars I would put my yoghurt in.

And then I made it. In a nutshell: Heat the milk to 92°C. Cool down quickly. When the temperature reaches 38°C, add yoghurt/culture. Mix. Pour mixture into jars. Incubate for 10-12 hours or so at between 35 and 43°C. Easy.


DIY yoghurt, image by Marina Oliphant

There was a bit of dicking around in the process: the sterilising of the jars, the constant monitoring of temperatures, especially while bringing the temperature down quickly (I ran cold water around the base of the saucepan while it sat in the sink) and during the incubation process (I sat the jars in warm water in a little Esky and every hour or so for 10 hours I added more warm water to keep the temperature at the right point). But the result was superb — quite sour, but divinely creamy — and the sense of satisfaction and sanctimony was considerable. I used one jar as plain yoghurt and strained the contents of the second to make labne.

And a chat with Pierre Issa, Sydney’s Mr Butter, aka Pepe Saya, the child of a Lebanese father and Scottish mother, revealed that I needn’t have made the process so tedious. Pierre, who makes rather special cultured butter, buttermilk and crème fraîche to sell, makes yoghurt at home every week for his family.

He sets his yoghurt in the same saucepan in which he heats the milk (pot-set), so eliminating the need for sterilisation; he lets the heated milk cool down on the stove at its own pace before adding the culture; and then, to incubate the yoghurt, follows his grandmother’s method, wrapping the pot, now with a lid on, in an old woollen blanket, packing away the thermometer and letting the yoghurt be for eight to 12 hours (the longer it’s left, the more sour the result). His only caution: don’t bump it. “You can scare the cultures if it’s disturbed — that’s my yoghurt superstition.”

If you use unhomogenised milk, your yoghurt is going to have a rich yellow fat crust. When he was growing up, Pierre remembers his mother keeping that for herself. “She’d eat it with a bit of sugar. But if you want a creamy texture with no fat, you’d use homogenised milk.”

So you haven’t the energy for the process. Fair enough. I’m not sure I do either on an ongoing basis. But since the Lebanese boyfriend in my past, it’s been a fixture in my fridge. For breakfast with poached fruit, for lunch with olives and crudités, for dinner dolloped on a lamb casserole with fresh mint and parsley or on top of moussaka, or beside a pilaf, or minty with a curry, or in a marinade for chicken, or in a garlicky sauce for poached eggs, or in a cake with lemon...

So I’m willing to follow Pierre’s preferences in the matter of natural yoghurt brands: Country Valley, biodynamic full-cream Jalna and Hastings Valley Dairy. You should know that Pierre has nothing to say on the matter of Chobani Greek yoghurt. And nothing whatsoever to say on the matter of frozen yoghurt shops.


34 comments so far

  • Well I believe my italian gourmet deli owners who instructed(reminded me of what my German grandmama had alreadty taught me as a child) how to make and eat yoghurt some twenty odd years ago.You use whole milk,pot set it,dont disturb it (it is fragile living cultures) and when you eat it ,do so whilst its still warmIhave a great electric maker with 5 200 ml pots ,so one a day for a week,and you recycle ,and just leave it on 24 /7.Once you have broken the skin ,consume it all.Do not put it in the fridge, you might as well microwave your organic vegetables--its as destructive.Oh , and always drink the whey ,its very cleansing and healthy,little miss muffet knew about curds and wheyt,didnt she?Did granmama tell you?

    Date and time
    May 31, 2013, 10:47AM
    • It's not the fat content that worries me, it's the amount of sugar manufacturers sneak in. As a diabetic with heart disease I think that processed food manufacturers should cease using the hidden killers - Salt and Sugar in all products. You don't miss them after a while. I was shocked when I studied the label of the plain supposedly healthy yogurt I usually buy. I think in future I'll have a bash at making my own.

      Date and time
      May 31, 2013, 10:57AM
      • I'm sorry but this whole calorie counting obsession is just dishonest given the number of people in this country who are overweight/obese yet seemingly know the calorie count of every food item. In many parts of the world, yoghurt is a staple and people eat it with every meal of the day - they are also nowhere near as obese as most Australians.

        I am a very healthy weight and I enjoy food from every group - funnily enough, especially the really "evil" ones like yoghurt, cheese and chocolate and the even more evil carbs like pasta and rice. I am still waiting for an article about how excessive alcohol consumption results in significant weight gain but I guess that's not as sexy as comparing the number of calories in blueberry yoghurt to Tim Tams.

        Secret to not having to care count calories:
        1) Eat a bit of everything in moderation but make sure you especially eat lots of fruits and vegetables;
        2) Don't drink excessively. If you want a comparison, three glasses of wine has the same number of calories as a large steak. And that's three normal sized glasses, not the fashionable ones that look like they were made for soup; and
        3) Keep active - especially focus on incidental exercise rather than scheduled exercise (i.e. going to the gym). Walk or cycle short distances instead of driving and get public transport where possible.

        If you do the above, I am certain you will never need to "diet" and can eat as much blueberry yoghurt as you like.

        Real World
        Date and time
        May 31, 2013, 11:01AM
        • I think the writer is making a point about one of the more popular types of yogurt and how sugar laden it is, not attacking yogurt generally. Consumers seem to believe this blueberry stuff is real yogurt, as opposed to homemade or no added sugar version, and because it's delicious either don't care or don't want to know how much extra additives are in it. Yes, people all over the world eat yogurt more often than aussies - but they're probably not downing 27g of sugar with their plain yogurt as well. In fact the ones that eat it with every meal are the ones that most likely make it themselves. That's the point of difference between their consumption and ours, they know what is in their food whereas westernerns rely on counting calories to keep track of their food intake.
          The secret to not having to count calories:
          If you wouldn't eat it in its raw form, don't put it in your body

          Date and time
          May 31, 2013, 2:22PM
        • @cimbom- you comment negatively about people counting calories but you wrote that 3 glasses of wine has as many calories as a piece of steak. That is the point of calorie counting and those who do it properly recognise the amount of calories in food and decide whether or not they are willing to eat 1000 calories in one item. Most wouldn't because it is ridiculous to eat or drink something that consumes (for me anyway) more than half my daily calorie count. There is nothing wrong with counting calories and it is a way for people to be aware of what they are eating- it has worked for me, I am down 20 kg and have kept it off. It isn't nice to criticise others just because they do things differently to you.

          Date and time
          June 01, 2013, 12:07PM
        • Did you even read the article or jumped straight to the comments? The writer is making the point that low-fat branding is an easy way to present something as low calorie/healthy when actually it's loaded with sugar. If you read it you'd see she also talks about how much she loves yoghurt with every meal and discusses how to make it. The final paragraph says it all.

          Date and time
          June 01, 2013, 12:32PM
        • @Cimbom, um you contradicted yourself. by point 1, along no you can't eat as much blueberry yoghurt as you like...moderation right?

          My thoughts on the matter, is that sugar like salt has a cumulative effect on the tastebuds. The key to getting to a healthy diet is to cut as much as possible out of your diet...if you do after a while when you have a sweet, something savory (ie a processed piece of food) you will actually find it too sugary or salty and unlikely to want to consume much anyhow. As your tastebuds adjust. (and of course always serve/consume smaller portions)

          I cannot eat sweetened yoghurt...too sweet. I only go for the unsweetened stuff because i have trained my palate. Its just like not being able to have any sugars in your cup of coffee or tea.

          Date and time
          June 02, 2013, 10:48AM
      • I'm a fan of Jalna - I kind of have to be, though. As a vegetarian, it's one of the few brands of yoghurt available to me, as it doesn't contain gelatine. (I was happy as a pig in [creamy, white] mud in England, where ALL of the yoghurts were vegetarian!)

        Not being a big sweet tooth, my favourite is plain Greek-style yoghurt with chilli sauce on French Toast. Mmmm. Now I'm hungry.

        Date and time
        May 31, 2013, 11:02AM
        • I love yoghurt and have it every now and again. I used to have Jalna then swtiched to Chobani - should I have stuck with Jalna according to Pierre?

          Date and time
          May 31, 2013, 11:20AM
          • We are obsessed with it because it's full of sugar. If you're not making yogurt at home without sugar, or buying plain yogurt without any sugar listed on the label, you're being fooled. All of the frozen yogurt chains, the "low-fat" yogurt you buy at the supermarket - it's all loaded with sugar. That would be fine but our bodies store excess sugar as fat. And people wonder why they can't lose weight! As an example my mother brought home some yogurt for me from the supermarket this week. It was marketed as a "men's" yogurt which is completely absurd, but guess what percentage of it was made up of sugar? 47%. Nearly HALF! I wont even start on the flavours, preservatives and thickeners that were also listed in the ingredients. Read labels, cut processed foods. They are the worst things you can eat. They might taste great but your insides are being poisoned.

            Date and time
            May 31, 2013, 12:02PM

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