Yoghurt – nutritional or just a dessert?

Feeding baby yoghurt

Of course most of us know the many health benefits of eating yoghurt (including the friendly bacteria and calcium they contain), but do you know the difference between real yoghurt and the ‘others’? The only ones that provide any real health benefits are the live yoghurts, the others just taste good, sometimes too good when it comes to children!

What is yoghurt?

WHO define yoghurt as the coagulated milk product obtained by lactic acid fermentation through the action of Lactobacillus Bulgaricus and Streptococcus Thermophilus from milk and milk products.

In plain English real ‘live’ yoghurt is milk or milk products that are fermented by the true yoghurt cultures – also called probiotics or friendly bacteria – and the cultures are still active at the time of consumption.

When is yoghurt not yoghurt?

Oh sorry to say for those who love it – when it is a sweet tasting dairy dessert. Some ‘yoghurts’ are in fact no more than desserts, they are commonly made from cow’s milk, thickened and with added sugars, fruit and other ingredients, few of these provide nutritional benefit.

Sadly, even some of those containing friendly-bacteria are little more than the same thing, just with some bacteria added at some point in the process. It is common for manufacturers to add bacteria to their products – rather than make it from live cultures – to encourage consumers to purchase their product. Often in such products the bacteria don’t live long enough to see the inside of your mouth.

Health Benefits

Real yogurts not only contain probiotics (such as lactobacillus acidophilus), but they are started from them (rather than having them added at the end). They are considered to have a great many health benefits. Below are listed the beneficial properties of probiotics and references to support these claims – not necessarily in order of importance.

  • Prevention of intestinal infections Probiotic bacteria can prevent nasty pathogens including Staphylococcus, Salmonella and Clostridia from taking hold in the intestinal canal.
  • Prevention of cancer Animal studies have shown that probiotic bacteria can stop tumors.
  • Improvement in lactose digestion Real yoghurts are low in lactose. Probiotic bacteria make substances that can breakdown the lactose in the yoghurt.
  • Reduce side effects of antibiotics We are all aware of the increasing issues regarding broad spectrum antibiotics as well as how they destroy our “healthy” intestinal microflora. Probiotic bacteria can put back the good bacteria after antibiotics or even after a tummy upset.
  • Infant diarrhoea and rotovirus prevention and assistance Probiotics (especially Bd.bifidum and S.thermophilus) can be excellent remedies of diarrhoea and rotovirus in infants.
  • Treatment of eczema and other allergies Probiotics are now being shown to strongly improve allergy responses in children especially those who suffer from eczema.
  • Softening of stools in formula fed infants Probiotics are commonly added to infant formulas with the added benefit of softening stools.
  • Improvement of the immune system Probiotic bacteria may help the immune system by increasing the number of cells that kill off unwanted compounds in the body.

What to look out for when buying a yoghurt

Marketing can sometimes be hard to digest so your best guide is to look at the label for information or even going to their web site and check out the manufacturer’s own production methods.

Once you begin to compare labels you will see that there can be great differences between yoghurts in terms of:

  • Their number of ingredients
  • Where ingredients are on the panel (indicating their relative quantity), i.e. sugar, is it in the top three
  • The binders and other additives and flavourings etc.

It is misleading to promote yoghurt as having the health promoting properties mentioned above unless it contains a minimum level of viable probiotic bacteria still present at the expiry date. Yogurt needs to contain a minimum of 1,000,000 viable probiotic bacteria cells per gram or ml to ensure it can deliver the maximum health benefits. It is a long journey for the bacteria, having to last the trip from the manufacturing plant to the stores, not to mention to your mouth.

You can find yoghurts that contain these levels until expiry date, and keep in mind that freshly made yoghurt can hold this level for up to as much as two weeks in the refrigerator.

Some general guidelines when shopping for yoghurt may include:

  • Opt for plain yoghurts first, especially for children to avoid them getting ‘hooked’ on the sweeter foods.
  • Select cultured/fermented yoghurts, most quality yoghurt producers will ensure they make it known somewhere on their product that it is a real yoghurt. Those that don’t make mention need more research done on them before purchase.
  • Generally, those with more variety of strains of friendly-bacteria provide a broader range of benefits.
  • Children under two should eat whole-fat products. Check that the yoghurt doesn’t have added sugar (by reading the ingredients panel and keep an eye out for the hidden sugars e.g. sucrose, glucose, lactose, fructose, sorbitol, mannitol, corn syrup, honey, malt, malt extract, maltose, rice extract, molasses, golden syrup and invert sugar).

My personal preference is plain unsweetened yoghurt such as Bornhoffen and Jalna, the latter being smoother and less tart; also Vaalia is a great yoghurt as it contains more varieties of bacteria and is low in fat (so best used for children over two). There are also many fantastic types of yoghurt made by small companies available at health food shops and deli’s. I get asked a lot about Easiyo yoghurt making system; it looks great to me, all the good stuff and none of the bad stuff. Plus there is the option of making your own, there are a lot of websites now that sell a variety of starter cultures (different cultures yield different tastes), many don’t require any special jars and some sites even have recipes using just a good natural yoghurt.

Low fat yoghurts

Remember that low fat products are not suitable for children under two years.

What about baby yoghurts?

Again, check the labels! You will find that the same rules apply to yoghurts marketed for infants and children. Personally I use the yoghurts mentioned above for my children from 9 months of age onward.

For more information see Kid’s nutrition or Baby Care


This information has been provided by Leanne Cooper from Sneakys baby and child nutrition. Leanne is a qualified nutritionist and mother of two very active boys.


1.Wikipedia, 2.Gilliland,S.E. and Speck,M.L.(1977a). "Antagonistic action of L.acidophilus towards intestinal and food borne pathogens in associative cultures. J. Food Prot. 40(12),820-823. 3.Reddy,G.V. et al.,(1983), Anti-tumor activity of yogurt components. J.Food Prot. 46(1),8-11. 4. Kim,H.S. and Gilliland,S,(1983), “L.acidophilus as a dietary adjunct for milk to aid lactose digestion in humans”. J.Daiyr Sci.66, 959-966. 5. Lidbeck,A. et al. Effect of oral supplementation with lactic acid bacteria during intake of antimicrobial agent. Intl. Dairy Lactic Acid Bacteria Conference, N.Z. 1995 6. Saavedra,J.M., et al. "Feeding of Bd.bifidum and S.thermophilus to infants in hospital for prevention of diarrhoea and shedding of rotovirus. The Lancet,1994, (344),1036-1049. 7. Gilliland,S.E.,Walker,D.K., “Factors to consider when selecting a culture of L.acidophilus as a dietary adjunct to produce a hypocholesterolemic effect on humans”. J.Dairy Sci.1990,(73),905-911. 8. Hatcher,G.E.,Lambrecht,R.S.,“Augmentation of macrophage phagocytic activity by cell free extract of selected lactic acid producing bacteria”. J.Dairy Sci.1993,(76),2485-2492.

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