I can see it now: Pure white, thick, and satisfying with a creamy mouth feel and just a touch of tartness. What’s so special about Greek yogurt? Get ready for this answer because you just might be shocked: Very little, it seems. Yogurt itself can offer loads of health benefits (as long as it hasn’t been doctored with tons of added sugar), but the Greek variety isn’t quite as special as expert food marketers would like us to believe.
Though Greek yogurt itself does not actually possess any added health benefits in comparison to yogurt of other thicknesses or consistencies, plain, unsweetened, full-fat yogurt has plenty to offer! Active live cultures help to promote the growth of healthy intestinal flora, and can improve digestion. As with all fermented or “cultured” foods, it is the presence of live, beneficial bacteria that can have a positive effect on health.
Greek Yogurt vs. Non-Greek Yogurt
The only difference between Greek or European-style yogurt and other yogurts is drainage. Let me explain. Though the technique for making various types of yogurt is basically the same, the number one difference between Greek yogurt and other varieties, believe it or not, is simply a matter of texture. In fact, what is considered “Greek yogurt” in Greece actually tends to be much thicker than that which is commercially available in the US.
Either way, no matter where you’re purchasing it, you can expect Greek yogurt to be a strained variety of yogurt from which water has been removed to form a thicker texture than that found in most “regular” yogurt. Texture is truly the only significant difference between Greek yogurt and other types of yogurt.
The “Greek” moniker also bears positive associations with the much-revered Mediterranean diet – a classic pattern of eating that is commonly lauded as a symbol of good health and long life. This dietary pattern is noted for being low in red meat and other animal-based proteins, and high in vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and olive oil. These components of the Mediterranean diet are supplemented with some full fat dairy, good hydration, regular exercise, and a glass or two of wine now and then.
The role that Greek yogurt plays in all of this is relatively small, but the recent marketing of various types of American-made yogurt under Greek brand names has been wildly successful. Some of these yogurts are nutritionally better than others, so pay close attention to the labels, mainly focusing a discerning eye on the ingredients and nutrition facts.
Full-Fat Products are not the Enemy
The quality of the milk itself also comes into play when it comes to the taste and nutritional composition of Greek yogurt. I try to eat whole, unprocessed foods with as few artificial food additives and stabilizers as possible. Under all circumstances, I would much rather eat a little less of a full-fat dairy product like yogurt or cheese than a whole bowlful of low-fat, additive enriched varieties.
You see, the absence of fat makes it far more difficult for dairy products to maintain their firmness or structure. Without the fat, starches and stabilizers like carrageenan become necessary though they add nothing to the product in terms of nutritional quality.
Recent studies have actually shown that a low-carb diet complete with full-fat dairy and other sources of fat is actually healthier, and has been shown to promote healthy weight loss more effectively than a low-fat diet. So, enjoy in moderation! Here’s an additional bonus: Full-fat Greek yogurt tastes better, too!
Milk Quality Makes a Difference
The taste can also be affected by the type and provenance of the milk. Though some experts swear it has little discernible effect on quality, I prefer milk that is organic and free of rBGH (or bovine growth hormone) whenever possible. Locally produced yogurt from small, well-tended herds of cattle just seems to taste better. Do some exploring in your area, and find out what’s available in terms of locally-produced yogurt.
This yogurt tends to cost more than the conventionally produced stuff, but I find you tend to get what you pay for, especially when it comes to food. Decide what that thick, creamy richness is worth to you, and locate a product that’s within your budget.
Though it’s true that Greek yogurt might not break the bank, many of us simply cannot afford to live on a completely local, sustainable, additive-free, humanely-raised, organic and free-trade diet. In my opinion, good yogurt just happens to be one of those things that it’s occasionally worth spending a little more on. I definitely feel like I notice the difference.
Know Your Labels
When purchasing yogurt, avoid getting swept off your feet by a frenzy of sugar-enhanced products with clever names. The big commercial brands specialize in this type of marketing. Avoid flavored or fruit-topped Greek yogurts, as these are often full of unnecessary, non-nutritive added sugars.
Sometimes the manufacturers even try to sneak some corn syrup in there since it’s far cheaper than cane sugar. Do yourself a favor, and make your own fruit-topped yogurt instead! Pre-packed syrupy and partially (or fully) cooked fruit that’s used to top (or sit below) Greek yogurt is far inferior to the fresh stuff. Create your own flavor combinations, and use whatever is in season.
I love topping a small bowl of Greek yogurt with fresh fruit, chia and hemp seeds, a sprinkling of whole grain granola or roughly chopped nuts, and a drizzle of honey for a touch of sweetness. It takes just a few minutes to create a flavorful treat that’s both healthy and easy to enjoy at any time of day.
If you have access to a refrigerator at work, pack up a container of yogurt and a separate container of cut fruit. Toss some nuts, seeds and maybe some crunchy whole grain granola in a separate baggie, and mix everything together when it’s time for lunch. Voilà! An instant classic!
Not only does yogurt aid digestion and offer a healthy dose of fat, which is necessary for our bodies to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, it’s also jam-packed with calcium. This is necessary for bone health, especially in adult women who have given up on drinking milk daily.
Yogurt also offers a decent amount of protein, which can be especially helpful in the late afternoon when your energy is flagging. No need for a nap – just eat some Greek yogurt!
Besides making the perfect breakfast or quick snack, Greek yogurt can be enjoyed any time of day. Use it to replace the mayonnaise in your favorite chicken or potato salad recipe or to replace the sour cream in your favorite dip.
If you’re hesitant to jump in with both feet right off the bat, try substituting half of the quantity of mayo or sour cream called for in a given recipe to start. I love the added element of tart richness that Greek yogurt has to offer.
The Versatility of Greek Yogurt
Greek yogurt can be enjoyed sweet or savory, and pairs well with just about anything that you can come up with. A simple go-to for me is any type of cuisine that traditionally incorporates yogurt – especially Greek (obviously) or Indian.
Rather than using vinegar-based marinades and salad dressings, try marinating chicken or fish in a Greek yogurt-based marinade instead, or topping fresh greens with an herbed and spiced yogurt drizzle.
The marinade will help to seal in the moisture while you’re grilling or roasting, resulting in perfectly cooked proteins that are tender and flavorful. Adding Greek yogurt to a salad dressing helps the body to assimilate those fat-soluble vitamins in your nutritious salad.
You can also use Greek yogurt as a dip to counter spicy foods. I love having a small side of yogurt studded with tiny chunks of refreshing cucumber and a shake or two of chunky chaat masala to dip my paratha into between bites of spicy chole.
Try substituting the sour cream that you would use to top your nachos or tacos with Greek yogurt instead. Even though certain national or regional cuisines already include yogurt as a staple, no one ever said yogurt wouldn’t translate well in other types of cuisine.
Oh, and don’t forget Russian and Scandanavian dishes! Nothing like the addition of a little Greek yogurt in the mustard sauce to slather on some smoked fish, or plopped into a cool bowlful of borscht (again, cleverly and oh-so-deliciously replacing the sour cream).
For a quick sandwich spread, plan ahead and make fresh Greek yogurt into a simple spreadable cheese. I was inspired to make this by Manjula, one of my online favorites, a master of vegetarian Indian cuisine. This fresh cheese retains the beneficial qualities of the active live cultures found in Greek yogurt in sandwich-friendly form.
Place 16 to 32 ounces of full-fat Greek yogurt in the middle of a large piece of clean muslin or cheese cloth, pull the sides together, and twist the ends to form a tight bundle. Squeeze over the sink or a large bowl, removing some of the water from the yogurt. Continue to squeeze just until you see the yogurt itself begin to come through the cloth.
Keep the bundle tied tightly, and allow it to rest in a colander or strainer placed over a large bowl in the refrigerator for about four hours. At the end of this time, give the bundle another squeeze to drain whatever extra moisture has collected.
Remove your yogurt cheese from the bundle, and use like a cream cheese to spread on toast and sandwiches. Mix with spices and finely shredded fresh vegetables for a savory spread (I like red bell pepper, jalapeno, carrot, cilantro, and cucumber!), or combine with raisins, dried cranberries, and a swirl of cinnamon for something sweeter. Serve on toast or as a dip with firm slices of fruit or vegetables. As Manula suggests, this spread also holds up well if you’d prefer a warm, grilled sandwich.
Greek yogurt also translates beautifully to dessert. Try making frozen yogurt popsicles by mixing yogurt with a touch of your favorite fruit juice and about a fistful of berries or peeled and finely diced fruit. I love the combination of yogurt, pomegranate juice and fresh blueberries. Freeze in popsicle molds or ice cube trays and enjoy this cool treat on a hot day. The kids will love it, too! If you’d prefer a pudding-type dessert, mix Greek yogurt with mango puree and chia seeds, or cocoa powder and sliced bananas. Chill in the refrigerator for at least half an hour before serving.
If you’re lactose intolerant, perhaps just the thought of adding all this dairy to your diet has you scoping the area for the closest bathroom. I’m lactose intolerant myself, and I’ve never had a problem. I’m not exactly an expert, but I find that the presence of the active bacteria and the full-fat content actually makes this particular form of dairy easier to tolerate.
I’m always sure to take some lactase enzymes immediately before chowing down on the stuff (available in pill form as Dairy Relief or under the brand name Lactaid), and I generally like to combine yogurt with other foods to help with digestion.
However, Greek yogurt has never given me a problem like ice cream or certain cheeses. I would advise the lactose averse to proceed with caution, but to make every effort to add Greek yogurt to your diet if at all possible.
If not, consider trying a dairy-free yogurt instead. These still contain live active cultures, the probiotics that are so beneficial to healthy digestion, with none of the lactose. I’ve found the Greek variety to be more difficult to find when it comes to dairy-free options, but you can always just strain it yourself.
Try the aforementioned cheese spread-making method, slightly adapted. Squeeze less vigorously and strain for a shorter period of time, until your yogurt reaches the desired consistency. The tart flavor, which is what I love so much about plain Greek yogurt, will probably be missing though.
Once you’ve exhausted all of these possibilities, try using your imagination. You won’t be disappointed! The opportunities for incorporating Greek yogurt into your diet are truly endless. As a cooling and nutrient-dense food, Greek yogurt is both nutritionally beneficial and flavorful.