There is currently some confusing and contradicting information about what type of dairy products we should consume (e.g. full cream low fat or fat free), with some experts actually advising to avoid dairy all together, and others suggesting the use of milk alternatives (almond/rice/soya milk).
Let’s consider the facts
There are several global guidelines recommending that dairy should form part of a healthy diet. The revised Food-Based Dietary Guidelines (FBDG) for South Africans recommend having milk, maas (traditional fermented milk) or yogurt every day. The FBDG specifically recommends fresh or powered milk, maas or unsweetened yogurt to prevent an increased intake of saturated fat, salt and sugar which are found in processed and sweetened dairy products.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend following a healthy eating plan that includes all foods and beverages within an appropriate calorie limits. This includes fat-free or low-fat dairy (milk, yogurt and cheese) and/or fortified soy beverages.
There are numerous benefits to including dairy in your diet.
- Dairy offers the essential amino acid, lysine, which can complement amino acids lacking in starches. This is helpful for vegetarians.
- Dairy contains bioactive proteins which modify certain enzymes responsible for lowering blood pressure.
- A study showed that dairy consumption lowered certain inflammation markers in obese participants.
- Dairy products can be a cost-effective source of protein and valuable calcium.
- Dairy is a complete food offering all macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate and fat.
- Several valuable nutrients are found in dairy products such as vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B12, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc. The FBDG recommends adults consume 400-500ml low fat milk per day which provides 480–610mg calcium and 608–760mg potassium which is 48–61% and 30–38% of the daily recommendations.
The best yogurt to choose
As we have established that dairy should be included in your diet, and due to the popularity of yogurt as well as the vast variety available on the market, the guidelines below provide information on the healthiest type of yogurt to select. There are a few factors to consider.
According to the R429 labelling regulations of South Africa, a product that has less than 170kJ/100g can be classified as low in energy. Out of the 29 yogurts assessed, not one met this recommendation. However, some products did come close. A yogurt with less than 220kJ/100g is recommended as part of a healthy eating plan and for weight loss.
Sugar is often the main concern when choosing yogurts. Unfortunately, assessing the sugar content of dairy products is not very easy. South African labelling regulations do not clearly indicate what are ‘added sugars’ and ‘natural/intrinsic sugars’. Milk naturally contains lactose which is a milk sugar. The labels on yogurts don't distinguish between lactose sugars and any other sugars like fruit pulp sugars or syrups which have been added.
In general, the flavoured yogurts such as strawberry, vanilla, tropical etc. have sugars added and therefore, should be limited or best avoided. Most of the plain low-fat, fat-free, Greek and double-cream yogurts do not have added sugars. Plain low-fat and fat-free yogurts had the lowest sugar or lactose contents with no mention of sugar in the ingredients list. From our evaluation, it is clear that double-cream and Greek yogurts do not have a lower sugar content compared to plain low-fat or fat-free yogurts.
The total fat and saturated fat contents of yogurts should be considered, as saturated fats have been linked to increase risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and strokes. Choose a yogurt that has less than 1.5g/100g of saturated fat. All plain low-fat and fat-free yogurts assessed met these criteria, although the double-cream and Greek yogurts did not.
Another perception some may have is that double-cream or Greek yogurts are best as they are the only ones that don’t have added salt. Yogurts are classified as being low in salt if they have less than 120mg/100g. All 29 yogurts assessed met the criteria and the plain low-fat and fat-free yogurts ranged from 30 to 96mg with the double cream options ranging from 57 to 78mg thus, indicating an insignificant difference between them.
After taking all the above-mentioned factors into consideration, the following yogurts came out tops:
1. Parmalat plain fat-free yogurt
2. Woolworths plain Ayrshire low-fat yogurt
3. Woolworths plain low-fat yogurt
4. Woolworths plain Ayrshire fat-free yogurt
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. (2015).8th Edition. Pg 1-144.
- Vermaak M. (2013). Have milk, maas or yoghurt every day: a food-based dietary guideline. In: Vorster HH, Badham JB, Venter CS, Food-Based Dietary Guidelines for South Africa: An introduction to the revised food-based dietary guidelines for South Africa. S Afr J Clin Nutr (Supplement) 26(3):S66-S76.
- R429. Department of Health. Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act. Regulations relating to the food labelling and advertising of foods: amendment. 2014. Pg 1-108
- Dairy-based nutrition information for dietitians. Re-discover Dairy SA. 2013