A decade ago, Greek yogurt started popping up on more grocery store shelves. Within just a few years, it grew to half of total yogurt sales. People gravitate to the Greek variety for its high protein and low level of carbs. It’s been made out to be a nutritional powerhouse, leaving regular (and, in many cases, way less expensive) yogurt in its healthy wake. But how you view the yogurt should have everything to do with what you want to get from your dairy. Here, we’re breaking down the pros and cons of the Greek variety. Read on to figure out your best dairy aisle fit.
What exactly is Greek yogurt?
First of all, it’s not really Greek—well, not exclusively. Greek yogurt as we know it is most comparable to a strained yogurt in Greece known as straggisto. But other countries, such as Turkey, have similar yogurt varieties. We think of this style of yogurt as Greek simply because the first company to introduce the product to the U.S. market, Fage, is Greek.
Compared with traditional yogurt, “Greek yogurt is thicker, creamier, and smoother because it’s been strained to remove the whey,” explains Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D.N., assistant professor at the University of North Florida and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Whey is the milk’s watery component, she explains, so “removing that liquid is what gives Greek yogurt its denser consistency.”
Beware that some brands don’t strain their yogurt. Instead, they add a thickening agent, such as cornstarch or gelatin, to reach a similarly creamy texture. These ingredients aren’t unhealthy on their own, but keep an eye on the ingredient list if you’d rather avoid extras in your yogurt.
What’s good about it?
Greek yogurts can have up to twice the protein of regular low-fat yogurt while containing half the amount of carbohydrates and sugar. A typical Greek serving has about 15 grams of protein and 6 grams of sugar versus 9 grams of protein and 12 grams of sugar in regular yogurt. The pumped-up protein level is great for building muscle and keeping you full. In fact, high-protein yogurt was shown to improve appetite control and satiety in a 2014 study published in Nutrition Journal. Be sure to look at labels, though, as protein can vary widely from brand to brand.
Greek yogurt may also be beneficial to your gut health. It has more probiotics than regular yogurt because it is more concentrated, Wright says. Yogurts, Greek in particular, are a great option for lactose-intolerant people who still want to reap dairy’s benefits. The live and active bacteria cultures in yogurt help break down lactose, making yogurt more easily digestible. Plus, Wright says, Greek yogurt has less lactose to begin with than traditional yogurt.
What are the drawbacks?
If the bone-strengthening power of dairy is a main reason you reach for yogurt, the Greek variety may not be your best bet. Greek yogurt has about half the calcium of regular yogurt. It also contains a lower level of potassium, an electrolyte that helps with muscle function and keeping the fluids in your body balanced. Both nutrients that are important for blood pressure control.
Full-fat Greek yogurt also has more fat than regular full-fat yogurt, Wright notes. That’s not necessarily a big drawback, though. Some fat helps your body absorb the yogurt’s nutrition. Plus, recent research in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that even high-fat yogurts and other dairy don’t increase your likelihood of heart or cardiovascular disease. But it’s worth considering if you’re on a reduced-fat diet. “Whether one yogurt style is healthier than the other depends on the consumer’s individual nutritional needs,” says Jen Bruning, R.D.N., media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
What’s it good for?
Yes, it’s a convenient snack or breakfast, but Greek yogurt is way more versatile than just eating it right out of the carton. With its thick texture and slightly sour flavor, plain Greek yogurt can stand in for sour cream as a topping (on tacos or chili) or as a base for dips. For dips, start with yogurt and add French onion or ranch seasoning, Bruning suggests, or make one from scratch by adding simple extras such as cucumber and mint. Another idea: “Bake sweet potato fries and dip them into a mixture of avocado and Greek yogurt with a spice blend like berbere or curry,” she says.
What’s the bottom line?
Read the nutrition label and choose yogurt with no added sugars and few ingredients. Make sure the label says “live and active cultures” so that you’re getting the probiotic benefits, Bruning says. Whether you’re going for Greek or regular yogurt, sidestepping flavored choices is key because they pack in extra sugar—often twice as much as plain. “Start with plain yogurt and add your own fruits, whole-grain cereals, nuts, etc.,” Bruning suggests. “This way, you get flavors you like, added nutrients, and you stay in control of added sugars.”