In 2003, Dannon’s Activia probiotic yogurt burst onto the scene with ads featuring a svelte Jamie Lee Curtis boasting about a new product that’s scientifically proven to regulate digestion and boost immune systems. These ads resulted in massive sales for Dannon as well as a $45 million lawsuit for false advertising. These days, Activia touts a more modest claim that it “may help reduce the frequency of minor digestive discomfort.” So are there any real health benefits to eating probiotic yogurt?
Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes, a book about the microbes that call our bodies home, believes that probiotics are of very little help to humans. “The claims surrounding these products would have you believe that they do a lot of good for us,” he said on “Bite,” Mother Jones’ food and politics podcast. “But, in fact, they tend to be quite medically underwhelming.” Berkeley Wellness agrees saying, “Probiotics are a promising field of research and may one day be used to treat or help prevent many disorders. But there’s not enough solid evidence to recommend their widespread use.”
Although yogurt is often marketed as a healthy product, it often contains a massive amount of sugar. In fact, most yogurt brands have close to 15 grams of sugar per six-ounce serving. One disturbing report by Graphiq, a health data site, found that 15 popular yogurts have more sugar than a regular-sized Snickers bar. According to Eat This, Not That!, the healthiest yogurts are Siggi’s, Kalona Super Natural Organic, and Chobani Simply 100.
A recent report from Vice revealed another downside to the recent yogurt trend: the environmental impact of whey. Yogurt’s creamy texture comes from straining out excess acid whey, a watery dairy byproduct. You’ll notice a small pool of it whenever you open a fresh cup of yogurt. According to a Cornell University report, for every 7,000 gallons of milk used in yogurt production, as much as 4,900 gallons of acid whey is produced. Most of this excess liquid is dumped in fields and used as fertilizer or added to animal feed. In 2011, an Ohio hog farmer was sentenced to six months in prison for killing over 36,000 fish after dumping cheese whey in a local creek.
If you enjoy yogurt, eat up, but don’t expect it to make you the picture of health. Choose yogurts that are organic, low in sugar, and high in calcium. “I eat yogurt because I like the taste of yogurt. It makes me feel happy,” Yong told “Bite.” “I would say that if you’re eating these products expecting to cure important diseases or to generally improve your health, I’m not sure that they’re going to do that.”