As most of you probably know, yogurt is prepared using milk. In the US, cows have become the primary source of this milk, though it can also come from sheep, goat and water buffalo. In fact, milk from sheep and goat has a much higher fat content and more nutritional value; the first yogurt probably came from these animals. Yogurt is created by introducing bacteria to the milk. Though the actual discovery of yogurt is still unclear, it is likely that natural enzymes in animal’s stomachs curdled with milk during the milking process, forming something similar to what we now know as yogurt.
Yogurt was discovered 4,000 years ago by nomadic Turkish peoples in Central Asia. It quickly spread throughout the Middle East, becoming a staple of many of these people’s meals as well as a signature food of the Ottoman diet. Yogurt became popular and important for a few reasons. Firstly, milk spoiled very quickly back in the day, turning bad after only a few hours. Yogurt, in addition to extending the life of milk, was easier to digest because the bacteria assisted in breaking down lactose. It can be said that yogurt was the first probiotic. High in fat, protein, vitamins and calcium, yogurt was considered a sort of miracle food for people throughout the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire, an incredibly culturally and ethnically diverse group of people (including, among others, Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Kurds), was key in the introduction of yogurt around much of the western world. In the 16th century Francis the 1st, the King of France, had life-threatening diaria. Suleiman the Magnificent, a friend of Francis’ and the most iconic and legendary of the Ottoman Sultans, sent a doctor to cure him. As the legend goes, the doctor prescribed yogurt for the King and his diarrhea was cured not long thereafter. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th-century that yogurt really began to take its hold on the western world. The Ottoman Empire was increasingly weaker during these years and many people were leaving it as a result of its crumbling state: as these people left yogurt was brought with them. During this period one scientist identified the yogurt bacteria and spread knowledge about yogurt health benefits. Yogurt being eaten as an every day food happened a bit later. In 1919, a Jewish doctor by the name of Isaac Carasso left the Ottoman Empire and settled in Barcelona. He began a yogurt plant that he named after his son, Danone. This has now grown into Danon, the largest yogurt company in the world. Armenian immigrants fleeing the Armenian genocide introduced yogurt to the United States, though it didn’t really catch on until Daniel, the son of Isaac, opened a yogurt factory in New York in the 1940’s.
By way of education, the thickness that Greek yogurt has over other brands comes from the fact that the excess milk whey is strained off. Using a special cloth, manufacturers extract the watery substance, which then gives the yogurt a thicker, fuller look and feel, with a wavy texture that belies the creamy taste.
It can be a little overwhelming to visit your local grocery store and see the aisles full of both Greek yogurt and Greek-styled yogurt, so this is the difference: Greek-styled yogurt is fake – it’s all a part of a marketing ploy to capitalize on the big bucks being made by real Greek yogurt suppliers like Fage, Chobani, Voskos and Oikos. Although the Greek-styled version does usually have more protein, the truth is that the true process makes it more expensive, so there’s no way it can still be the same price you’ve come to expect of yogurt. If you want the full health benefits, avoid this kind and go for the Greek. The other kinds have artificial, thickening additives to give them that full look and feel – but without the benefits. It’s actually quite a terrible practice…
You might be wondering how yogurt is made in the first place. Milk is fermented using cultures – which are just probiotic bacteria (basically, they’re good for you; much like the billions that live in your stomach already). This is how all yogurt starts out. When it comes to Greek yogurt, an extra step is added to the process: the runny milk whey is removed to create a thicker mix that has more in common with cheese than yogurt. And here we come to why Greek yogurt has more than double the protein and often double the cost of traditional yogurt – about four times as much milk is used to make a single cup. There you have it.
Another great benefit of Greek yogurt is that there is less sugar and carbs. This is due to the cloth strainer; it removes this stuff and produces a product choc-full of protein but lacking in fattening elements. The live bacterial cultures are preserved, too, which helps digestion and even helps fight off colds when made a part of your regular diet.
The nutritional benefits are great, but the truth is that Greek yogurt puts quite a bit of a load on the environment. It takes a lot to make it, as you can see from the extra milk, for example. So perhaps it’s a cost-benefit analysis between health and environment, because regular yogurt really just isn’t that good for you because of the added sugar. For those desiring a bit more than “plainly plain,” as the famous Fage yogurt commercials tout, there are multiple varieties of most brands of Greek yogurt on the market – and best of all, these strawberry, peach and other fruit concoctions don’t count towards your daily value of sugar because there’s no added sugar in them – they’re all-natural. Greek may very well be the way to go.