Has Greek Yogurt Jumped the Shark?

Sometimes, a product's "Greek yogurt" version is actually less healthy than the regular option

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America’s love affair with Greek yogurt is reaching a fever pitch. All told, we’re spending $1.6 billion on this once obscure dairy product, according to a Packaged Facts report released in March — a whopping 50% more than last year. A total of 35% of all yogurt we buy today is Greek, up from only 1% in 2007.

Perhaps betting that our current infatuation has left consumers all fuzzy-brained, marketers are slapping the “Greek yogurt” label onto almost everything — from sugary cereals and veggie dip to snack cakes and butter. But as history has proved, health halos are inevitably followed by backlash. We saw it with agave nectar. We saw it with acai berries. Both were tasty products with upstanding health merits, but with the media breathlessly touting them as quasi-miracle foods and companies cramming them into anything you can sink your teeth into, neither food could have possibly lived up to the hype.

(MORE: Smooth Operator: How Chobani Spread Greek Yogurt Across America)

I’d hate to see that happen to Greek yogurt. True purists like Michael Psilakis, a first-generation American chef of five Greek-inspired New York restaurants, points out that the yogurt that is enjoyed deep in the rural villages of Greece is, in fact, full-fat and strained from goat’s milk. But even so, Americanized Greek yogurt, made from cows and usually low fat or nonfat, has wonderful credentials as a stand-alone supermarket staple. In the U.S., Greek yogurt is expected to mean that it’s treated with live and active bacterial cultures — hence, its digestive-health benefits. It’s also expected to be strained to such an extent that most of the water and whey are eliminated — hence, its richer texture and tangier taste. (I say “expected” because the Food and Drug Administration provides no standard definition for Greek yogurt; the high court of England and Wales, in contrast, just last month declared that Greek yogurt must come from Greece.) You need two to four times more milk to make Greek yogurt compared with regular yogurt, and because it packs around twice as much protein, it’s more satisfying too.

Still, it won’t redeem us from bad choices, especially if it’s not real to begin with. In the case of Good & Delish Probiotic Greek Yogurt Covered Pretzel Bites, sugar and palm-kernel oil are higher on the ingredients list than Greek-yogurt powder. In the Nice! Blueberry Greek Yogurt Cake (engineered in large part from bleached wheat flour, by the way), its “Greek yogurt” content is described as being made from “nonfat milk and fat-free milk solids.” And as Kantha Shelke, spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, points out, “Anything on the ingredients label besides ‘milk’ and ‘live and active cultures’ is merely an admission of thickening the product to look like the original.”

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Live and active cultures have a limited life span outside the refrigerated yogurt cup. They usually can’t survive the high sugar levels and frigid temperatures necessary to create the majority of frozen-yogurt treats. Words like pasteurized or heat-treated, post-culturing, also clue consumers into the lack of digestive-health benefits. If these processes occur before the cultures are added, they may, in fact, have a chance for survival: that’s because some probiotics may be viable at room temperature and some might be specially treated to withstand baking — but this can’t be assumed, unless the manufacturer explicitly says so (as Naked Pizza does). But in many cases, as Kristen Deshaies, vice president of marketing for Stonyfield Organic Greek (formerly Stonyfield Organic Oikos), argues, “Shelf-stable products are taking advantage of the trend without offering the health benefits people are seeking.”

Nevertheless, Greek-fauxgurt items often do offer a little extra protein, but at a high cost. When I sent the labels for a box of cereal, pretzel bites and yogurt cakes to New York City registered dietitian Lauren Slayton, she bemoaned the high levels of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and preservatives and also pointed out that sometimes a product’s Greek-yogurt version is actually worse than other options in its line.

(MORE: Certifiably Good)

Consider, for instance, Honey Bunches of Oats Greek Honey Crunch. (In case supermarket shoppers miss it, the word Greek is written in humongous blue “Hellenic” letters.) It indeed contains 3 more grams of protein than Honey Bunches of Oats Honey Roasted (5 g vs. 2 g). But you’re also stuck with around twice as much sugar (13 g vs. 6 g); fat (3.5 g vs. 1.5 g); and calories (230 g vs. 120 g), as well as almost 15% more sodium (160 mg vs. 140 mg).

I’m all for Greek yogurt when it actually enhances the health or flavor of a product. (For instance, the bright tanginess of Ben & Jerry’s Banana Peanut Butter Greek Frozen Yogurt is — to quote the carton — “Really Greekin’ good.”) But otherwise, as with any whirlwind romance, we’re better off stepping back and figuring out if we truly love it, or just the idea of it.