Culture shock: your ideas about yoghurt are probably wrong
While a study suggests it could lower stroke risk, here are the real health benefits - or not - of this 'superfood'
Could a pot of full-fat yoghurt for breakfast be an alternative to taking a daily aspirin to prevent strokes?
New research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that a fatty acid found in dairy could lower the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, and strokes in particular.
Moreover, the University of Texas scientists, who analysed nearly 3,000 adults older than 65 for 22 years, reported that they had found no significant link between dairy fats and heart disease and stroke, two of the biggest killers associated with a diet high in saturated fat.
The report follows another US study which found that men and women who already have high blood pressure are at lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease if they eat more than two servings of yoghurt a week.Scientists from the Boston University School of Medicine, Massachusetts looked at two large cohorts (55,898 females from the Nurses’ Health Study, and 18,232 males from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study) and found that eating yoghurt as part of a healthy diet reduced the risk by 17% in women and 21% in men.
It’s interesting news for those of us who made the switch from full-fat plain yoghurts to skimmed-milk versions. Especially since recent evidence has revealed that these dairy-light yoghurts are not so healthy, either. A Public Health Liverpool report in April found that some single pots of yoghurt contained the equivalent of almost five sugar cubes.
So, what’s the skinny?
But is yoghurt, with its balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat that’s rich in calcium and vitamin D, really such a “superfood”, or is it time to rethink everything we thought we knew its health benefits?
First, yoghurt is no longer the dieter’s best friend
Time was when dieters were advised to reach for a yoghurt to take the edge off their appetite. Not any more.“Well, not if you are opting for a low-fat yoghurt which is high in sugar,” says Kim Pearson, a nutritionist based on Wimpole Street, London. “Some well-known brands contain 20g (five teaspoons) of sugar per serving. People think they are healthy, but commercial yoghurts are little more than a dessert.”
Britain's National Health Service recommends that all adults keep sugar consumption to no more than 30g a day. In the new study, the low-fat yoghurts contained 17g of sugar and researchers noted that those “seeking to increase yoghurt intake should be advised to maintain a healthful eating pattern”.
Can it help, rather than trigger, asthma?
A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison published in the Journal of Nutrition last month found that eating a 227g yoghurt before a meal improved the metabolism and dampened down inflammation, which is associated with chronic conditions such as asthma, arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.The scientists behind the research, which was supported by the American National Dairy Council, claim the key is yoghurt’s ability to calm chronic inflammation by improving the levels of healthy bacteria in the gut.
The news will be of interest to anyone with an allergy-related condition, such as asthma, who may have eschewed dairy thinking it could trigger an attack. However, Allergy UK warns that while food allergies can be triggers for asthma, only a very small percentage of people are allergic to milk products. A spokesperson says: “For them, eating these foods may result in wheezing.
“Calcium-rich dairy products are essential for healthy bones, especially for children and adolescents. And people with asthma can be at higher risk of the bone disease osteoporosis because of the use of steroid medication. So you should only avoid dairy products if necessary, ensuring you replace them with other sources of calcium under the guidance of your GP, nurse or a dietitian.”
Can yoghurt alleviate arthritis?
Here the picture is even less clear. Dr Stephen Simpson, director of research and programmes at Arthritis Research UK, says: “This study suggests that low-fat yoghurt might have an impact on some types of inflammation. However, because the research represents a correlation with biomarkers of inflammation and didn’t include people with arthritis, it’s too soon to say whether eating yoghurt could make a difference for these people.“We know that people with arthritis want to know more about the role their diet plays in managing their condition. That’s why we are investing in studies in this area.”
Does Simpson think dairy should be avoided in general by those with arthritis? “There isn’t enough evidence to say that any particular diet improves arthritis symptoms. But we do know that excluding a food group, like dairy, could mean that you miss out on important vitamins and minerals, such as calcium.
“The most important thing is to eat a healthy, balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight, to avoid putting extra strain on your joints.”
What’s wrong with probiotic yoghurt?
“Yoghurts contain probiotics which can improve a range of gut conditions,” says Foster. “The theory is great. But the dose in the brands you find in supermarkets is so low, it is of negligible benefit. The probiotics get broken down by stomach acid long before they get a chance to be useful.”An independent Canadian study published in Nutrients in 2017 agrees. Scientists from the University of Toronto looked at 31 studies which found probiotics were associated with “decreased diarrhoea and constipation, improved digestive symptoms, glycaemic control, antioxidant status, blood lipids, oral health and infant breastfeeding outcomes, as well as enhanced immunity and support for Helicobacter pylori [which causes ulcers] eradication”.
But they warned that many of the studies had been funded by the food industry and tested dosages that were up to 25 times the dosage found in most food products. “Many dosages are too low to provide the benefits demonstrated in clinical trials,” warned Dr Mary Scourboutakos, the lead researcher. “Further research is needed to enable more effective use of these functional foods.”Pearson says: “Consuming probiotics in food is great as everyday maintenance but if it was for a specific purpose, such as after taking a course of antibiotics, I would recommend a high-strength supplement instead.”
Is going dairy-free beneficial?
Non-dairy yoghurts, such as those made with soya beans or coconut milk, can be among the most highly processed varieties, and are often laden with sugar.However, Pearson singles out one dairy-free variety, Co Yo Vanilla Dairy Free Yoghurt, for praise. “This yoghurt contains just four ingredients: coconut milk, vanilla bean paste, tapioca starch and live cultures (the plain version contains just three – no vanilla). It’s relatively high in fat, but they are healthy fats, so that’s no bad thing as long as it’s in moderation.”
Still, at £4.99 (R88) for a 400g pot, going vegan isn’t a cheap option.