You might be surprised to hear that yogurt is older than salt, sugar, cocoa, and even olive oil! Nearly 7,000 years ago, people in the Middle East carried milk in bags made of animal pelts. The milk would ferment, and they eventually realized the thicker end product had positive health benefits. Yogurt became a staple in the diets of many ancient civilizations, as it is in a number of countries today.
What is yogurt, exactly?
Yogurt is the final result of milk fermentation. To make yogurt, milk is heated up and then mixed with a yogurt culture made of specific bacteria. The milk is then left alone for a few hours to ferment.
During fermentation, the added bacteria convert milk’s lactose into lactic acid (lactic acid is the reason why yogurt tastes so sharp and tangy). This switch to lactic acid lowers milk’s pH (makes it more acidic), and causes a shift in the structure of proteins, making the milk become semisolid.
Is my yogurt alive?
Yes. Well, it’s not so much that yogurt itself is alive, but that in your yogurt exist living (healthy) bacteria.
Is that dangerous?
Not at all. Remember the bacteria that worked so hard to ferment the milk? That bacteria is also what provides the great health benefits that you get from eating yogurt.
What exactly are yogurt’s health benefits?
Yogurt has a lot of health benefits. Interestingly, although yogurt and milk are very similar, yogurt tends to have higher amounts of the same nutrients that you find in milk.
Some of yogurt’s health benefits include:
- More proteins, vitamins, and minerals (like vitamins B2 and B12, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and zinc) in a serving of yogurt than in a serving of milk
- More lactic acid than milk, which allows people who are lactose intolerant to better digest yogurt even if they cannot digest milk
- Reduction of constipation, because some of the bacteria in yogurt are believed to help digestion
- A more balanced gut microflora. We all have bacteria in our guts, and imbalances in them lead to unpleasant things like diarrhea. Eating yogurt replenishes your gut with bacteria that restore the inner balance of healthy bacteria
- A possible reduction in allergic reactions and high blood pressure. Probiotics and peptides in yogurt reinforce the body’s natural defenses against these conditions
- Lowered serum cholesterol. Some strains of yogurt have been shown to inhibit the production of cholesterol
- Reduced rates of cancer. A number of studies have shown that higher consumption of fermented products leads to lower rates of certain cancers
Compared with people who don’t eat yogurt, yogurt consumers tend to have lower BMIs, smaller waist circumferences, lower levels of blood pressure and fasting glucose and insulin, and lower levels of triglycerides as well. This can make yogurt a helpful part of pregnant women’s diets, helping them reduce their chances of gestational hypertension and gestational diabetes.
How do probiotics fit into all of this?
If you find yourself wandering the grocery aisles confused and uncertain about what yogurt product to buy, marketing may be to blame. You’ve probably noticed a lot of yogurts nowadays are advertised as ‘probiotic yogurts,’ all with confusing names like “bifidus regularis” on their label.
Probiotics are microorganisms that can have positive health benefits for our bodies. All yogurt contains probiotics. But some yogurt products have other bacteria strains added in, hence all the different names for bacteria that you see on various yogurt products.
So should you specifically shop for strains of probiotics?
Experts aren’t entirely sure. If you have a product that helps your indigestion or gives you less of a reaction than other kinds, then by all means, continue to eat it. But you can also just choose to consume fermented foods that naturally have probiotics in them. Some of these foods are:
- Aged cheese
And of course, yogurt.
Some people can’t get enough of yogurt, while others would rather go hungry than face yogurt’s gelatinous texture. If you don’t enjoy yogurt, there are lots of other healthy alternatives that provide similar nutrients and bacterial benefits. But if you want to try or enjoy yogurt, and you’ve been confused about the effects of its live cultures, rest assured that these cultures make yogurt a dietary option with enormous health benefits.
- “Ch. 17: Nutrition During Pregnancy.” ACOG. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Apr 2015. Web.
- “The Yogurt craze: Is it really healthy?” UWHealth. University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority, 2017. Web.
- L O’Mahoney, at al. “Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium in irritable bowel syndrome: symptom responses and relationship to cytokine profiles.” Gastroenterology. 128(3):541-51. Web. Mar 2005.
- “Health benefits of taking probiotics.” Harvard. Harvard University, Dec 2015. Web.