That being said, seeing as the dairy aisle feels more crowded than ever before (Greek yogurt! Sugar-free yogurt! Low fat, non fat, full fat! Skyr! Plant-based! Yogurt covered in M&Ms!), the real question many of us face today is more along the lines of: How can we even begin to pick the best yogurt for gut health from a seemingly endless array of options?
This very question led us to Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LD, CLEC, CPT, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, to learn about the one probiotic-rich yogurt she herself keeps stocked in her refrigerator at all times. Plus, what telltale signs to look out for when picking the best yogurt for gut health on the market.
An RD's go-to yogurt for gut health (dairy-based and plant-based options included)
By now, we know that yogurt is a fermented dairy product with tons of health and gut-boosting potential. This is thanks to probiotics, which help support and improve digestive health by maintaining levels of good bacteria in the gut. “There is ample data linking consuming dairy yogurt and gut health, so I tend to look to it as a delicious way to help boost and balance my microbiome,” Manaker says.
Favorite dairy-based yogurt
“When I am making a grocery run, I always grab a container of Stonyfield Organic plain Greek yogurt—not only because it offers a variety of live cultures, but it contains no added sugars and is made with quality organic ingredients. With 16 grams of protein and tons of important micronutrients, like calcium, this yogurt makes its way into so many recipes in my kitchen,” Manaker says.
Favorite plant-based yogurt
As for a plant-based yogurt, Manaker says that she loves The Forager Project organic kids cashew milk yogurt that comes in a pouch to make it kid-friendly (or adult-friendly, obvi). Do I spy the modern-day Go-Gurt? “Even though it is marketed for kids, I love the product because it is so easy to eat when on the go,” she says. A win for us adults looking to let our inner children live their best lives.
“The yogurt has added probiotics and nutrients that some dairy-free yogurts can be missing, like vitamin B12. It has just enough added sugar to make it taste good without overloading our bodies with the sweet stuff, and it actually has some fiber and protein in it, too,” Manaker points out. Another big plus is that it has no artificial colors or ingredients. Instead, it uses turmeric powder (an anti-inflammatory superhero) as a natural source of color.
So, how exactly does an RD choose the best yogurt for gut health?
1. Stick to yogurts with low sugar
“When I am selecting my yogurt, I try to opt for those that contain as little added sugar as possible. Since fruit is a natural source of sweetness that contains no added sugar, combining a low-sugar or sugar-free yogurt with some berries, kiwis, bananas, or otherwise gives my dish a boost of flavor along with antioxidants, fiber, and nutrients,” Manaker says.
2. Always buy probiotic-rich yogurts
Another important factor that she looks for is whether or not the yogurt contains live cultures, aka gut-healthy probiotics. “Not all yogurts contain live cultures,” Manaker says. So, make sure to pay close attention to what’s on the label. “Many shelf-stable yogurts do not have live cultures, and therefore they may not support gut health as effectively as those with these live bacteria. There are some refrigerated options that do not contain live cultures as well. I always make sure the container indicates that it contains live and active cultures to ensure I am fueling my gut with live probiotics,” she points out. And FYI: The exact colony forming unit (CFU) count doesn't actually matter.
3. Avoid products with unnecessary additives
Another no-no in Manaker’s yogurt-shopping book is unnecessary additives. “I always choose yogurts that are free from artificial colors and flavors,” she says.
4. Greek yogurt (with some fat) is the way to go when it comes to yogurt
“I like leaning on Greek yogurts, as they tend to contain more protein and fewer grams of added sugar. Having a little fat helps make the yogurt a bit more satisfying, and it helps curb feeling hunger pangs shortly after eating my yogurt. Some data suggests that dairy fat may play a positive role in reducing blood pressure in certain situations, too,” Manaker says.
How do plant-based yogurts stack up against dairy-based yogurts?
For starters, Manaker says that both plant-based and dairy-based yogurts can be a vessel for fueling the body with live cultures as long as they are included in the processing. This is where she draws the line between the similarities. "Although dairy and plant-based yogurts are quite different, that’s not to say one is better than the other. Choose based on your own dietary needs," she says.
For starters, Manaker explains that some dairy-free yogurt can be very low in protein, which people may notice by feeling hungry shortly after eating it. She also notes that some research indicates that dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and kefir may best balance the gut microbiota composition. Manaker caveats by stating that for some, eating dairy foods can result in constipation or gas (or allergic reactions, if you are someone who is sensitive to dairy or lactose), and if this is the case, a plant-based yogurt is the obvious best choice for you.
“Regardless of whether a person is choosing a dairy or plant-based yogurt, the variety should be low in added sugars, free from artificial ingredients, and, most importantly, should taste good,” Manaker says. Basically, you really can’t go wrong when it comes to choosing the right type. (Phew.)
How to get the most gut-boosting benefits from eating yogurt
“When people eat probiotic-rich foods, I like to encourage them to eat a source of prebiotic fiber at the same time. Prebiotic fiber is an indigestible fiber that acts as fuel to beneficial bacteria. So, a slightly underripe banana, oats, and apples are all prebiotic food sources that can be combined with yogurt for a one-two punch in the gut health department,” Manaker says. The more you know!
Manaker also wants folks to avoid making this common mistake when cooking with yogurt: “Remember that many strains of probiotic bacteria can not survive beyond 100 degrees Fahrenheit. So, if you are using yogurt or kefir in your baked goods recipes, know that you may not reap all of the benefits of these foods if you add too much heat, as the bacteria may not be viable once you ingest the product,” she says.
Now, where's my trusty spoon?
Let's talk even more about yogurt, shall we?
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