Recently after dinner, my mom opened her refrigerator door and pulled out a container of blueberry-flavored yogurt instead of her favorite dessert, a miniature Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar.
“This is my Noosa!” she exclaimed, then proceeded to eat more than half of the 8-ounce container before putting the rest back for the next day.
My 76-year-old mother is crazy for this “Australian-style” yogurt, which she now buys at her local supermarket. This is a woman who has never eaten much yogurt, period — Australian, Greek or otherwise.
Turns out, there’s an international invasion in the yogurt aisle of most mainstream grocery stores.
Russian-, Bulgarian-, Icelandic-, Asian-, Australian- and Greek-style yogurts are popping up next to brands like Yoplait and Dannon, all trying to keep up with the growing wave of consumers like my mom, who’ve enthusiastically embraced yogurt as part of their diet.
“In 2003, 18 percent of the U.S. population consumed yogurt at least once in a two-week period,” said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for NPD group. “Today that number is 32 percent, up 14 points. That’s huge.”
Curious, I grabbed a grocery cart and went to find out what was going on in the local yogurt world.
I hit the supermarket and found Mom’s Noosa, along with Chobani, Fage and Greek God Greek-style yogurts, Liberté Greek yogurt, and the Muller Greek-style brand, originally made in Germany but now manufactured in the U.S. by Quaker. Muller came in individual-size containers and in square ones, too, with caramelized almonds in one and granola in the other, so you can stir these in at the last minute.
It’s not all Greek, but a lot of it is.
“It wasn’t until Chobani came along that Greek took hold and became a trend,” says Robert Novotny, specialty foods director at the Central Market Dallas Lovers Lane store. “Greek’s been in fashion the last four to five years, and it’s now towards the end of its life cycle.”
How did this happen? How did the U.S. go from happily buying frothy, whipped Key-lime-pie-flavored yogurt to the far tangier, less sugary yogurts with hard-to-pronounce names?
Most likely, it was boredom.
“Americans love novelty,” said Balzer, “but novelty in new versions of what we already know.”
Yogurt’s versatility and portability also makes it desirable to its biggest consumers, women and children.
“You can eat it for breakfast, lunch, dessert, and you can get it any way you want,” said Balzer. “It’s one of the easiest foods you can eat — look at the label: There are no cooking instructions.”
That plus the health benefits — yogurt is packed with protein, calcium and often added probiotics, which are good for digestive health — made it an easy choice for consumers looking for a change.
With brands styled after yogurts from Bulgaria to Southeast Asia, how does a customer know what to choose? Here’s a quick primer on what gives yogurts their native accents:
• All yogurts are made from milk that has been fermented with bacteria cultures. What happens after that is how they differ.
• Greek and Icelandic styles are then strained to remove the whey, lactose and natural sugars. This makes them higher in protein and calcium and with fewer carbohydrates.
• Kefir is a drinkable yogurt, originally from Eastern Europe.
• Asian-style yogurts, like Tarte, are cooked to caramelize the milk’s sugars and have a smooth and creamy texture that’s like a dessert pudding.
• When active bacteria cultures are added to yogurt, this gives it an additional probiotic benefit, making it great for digestive health. This kind of yogurt is also easier to digest for those who are lactose-intolerant — as is the newest crop of yogurts, made from sheep’s milk, goat’s milk, soy milk, coconut milk and almond milk.
• Some are supertangy, whereas others have an almost undetectable tang. Yogurt also can be so thick you can stand your spoon in it, creamy like a pudding, or watery-thin.
A matter of taste
One is not better than the next. It really depends on what you like and what you’re used to.
Heather Dickie, a local graphic designer, said she tried “at least 10” yogurts before she found her favorite, a blueberry-acai Greek yogurt from Fage, which had just the right taste and texture she was looking for. She eats one every morning for breakfast.
“If it’s too liquidy, I’m not interested. If it’s thick like cottage cheese, I’m not interested. Fage is thick and has body but it isn’t clumpy. Plus, I love blueberries,” she said.I always have full-fat Greek yogurt on hand and buy it in the largest containers available. Besides spooning it into a bowl with fruit, or adding it to smoothies, I use yogurt instead of sour cream and buttermilk for ranch and other dressings, in cakes (in France, yogurt cake is one of the first recipes children learn to make), to make raita, and to marinate chicken or lamb for Indian food.
Turns out I’m in the minority of yogurt buyers. Supersweet flavors reminiscent of the ’90s aside, flavored yogurts are still the biggest sellers, with unflavored, plain yogurt at about 10 percent of overall sales nationwide.
Most popular are low-fat and zero-fat yogurts.
Perhaps to try and tempt more men, there’s a new yogurt called Powerful Yogurt, a protein-amped yogurt in a black plastic container with a bull’s head as its logo and red flames in the background.
“Find your inner abs,” the label reads. I see this and wonder if yogurt is about to jump the shark. Said Balzer, “Anything that grows this fast will peak out.”