Is Greek Yogurt Actually Healthy?

Greek yogurt has enjoyed a massive surge in popularity in recent years. But is it more dessert than "superfood"?

Perhaps no food has enjoyed a greater boom in popularity during the last half decade than Greek yogurt. Once a rarity inside U.S. supermarkets, Greek yogurt now makes up roughly half of all yogurt sales nationwide.

One reason for the rapid rise in demand is the notion that Greek yogurt is significantly healthier than most other types of yogurt. But is this really true? Does Greek yogurt deserve its reputation as a superfood, or do the nutrition facts reveal that it's little more than an exotic dessert? STACK investigates.

What is Greek Yogurt?

Greek Yogurt

Traditional Greek yogurt is made by straining the whey out of regular yogurt. Whey is the liquid that remains after milk has curdled. The straining gives Greek yogurt a thicker, creamier texture than regular yogurt, but Greek yogurt also has less sugar and more protein.

However, the FDA doesn't currently have regulations in place for what can and cannot be labeled "Greek yogurt." This means that companies can use additional ingredients or alter the recipe while still marketing their product as "Greek yogurt." Real Greek yogurt contains only two ingredients—milk, and "live and active" cultures. The more a brand adds to these two ingredients, the worse the yogurt's nutritional value will typically be.

Protein and Probiotics

Greek Yogurt

Traditional Greek yogurt is quite healthy.

According to the USDA, a six-ounce serving of nonfat Greek yogurt contains 100 calories, less than a gram of fat, 61 mg of sodium, 240 mg of potassium, 6 grams of carbohydrate, 6 grams of sugar and 17 grams of protein. It's also high in calcium and vitamin B-12. Six grams of sugar is not an insignificant amount, but none of it qualifies as "added sugar," because it all comes from lactose, the naturally-occurring sugar in milk.

Perhaps the best thing about Greek yogurt is its ridiculously high protein content. Greek yogurt typically contains twice the amount of protein found in regular yogurt.

One example of a high-protein greek yogurt is Fage Total Greek Yogurt. A seven-ounce serving contains 18 grams of protein. For comparison, an equivalent serving of Dannon All-Natural Plain Whole Milk Yogurt contains roughly 8 grams of protein. In this comparison, the Greek yogurt contains more than twice as much protein as the regular yogurt. Unfortunately, this isn't the case with every brand. A six-ounce serving of Zoi Vanilla Greek Yogurt, for example, contains just 8 grams of protein. The differences in protein content often come down to differing preparation methods or ingredients.

Generally speaking for athletes, the more protein, the better. Protein not only helps build muscle mass, it also plays an important role in satiety and weight management. A 2014 study published in Nutrition Journal found that a high-protein yogurt snack helped healthy women stay fuller for longer and consume fewer calories throughout the day better than a high-fat snack with an equal number of calories.

The type of protein found in Greek yogurt (casein) makes it especially attractive for those who want to pack on lean muscle, as it contains all nine essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are those that cannot be produced by the body—we must get them through food.

RELATED: Why You Should Care About Amino Acids 

Another big benefit of Greek yogurt is its high probiotic content. Probiotics are the "good bacteria" that live inside your gut. When you ingest probiotics, they enter what's known as the "gut microbiome." The gut microbiome consists of yeasts, fungi and roughly 3 to 4 pounds of bacteria. More than 5,000 species of bacteria live in the gut, and the bacteria balance inside the gut plays a huge role in overall health.

"Probiotics are live microorganisms that beneficially affect your gut," says Kristin Kirkpatrick, registered dietitian and wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic. "The bacteria that reside in the gut are very diverse and are involved in actions such as supplying essential nutrients, synthesizing vital vitamins, digesting cellulose, promoting nerve function and destroying toxins."

Generally speaking, the more diverse a person's microbiome, the better. Lean, healthy people have more diverse bacteria in their gut than obese, unhealthy people; and the average American gut is less diverse than those of people in other countries with healthier populations. A diverse gut often equals a healthy gut, one that's adept at keeping the body running optimally.

Projects like the National Institutes of Health's Human Microbiome Project exist to better understand the relationship between the microbiome and human health. The condition of the gut microbiome has already been connected to autism, diabetes, obesity, cancer, IBS, arthritis, Parkinson's disease, allergies, inflammation, acne, depression and more. The fact that probiotics can reduce your risk of these conditions speaks volumes about their potential powers.

RELATED: Why Your Gut Might Be The Most Important Part of Your Body

Watch out for Sneaky Sugar Sources

High sugar totals can be a good way to tell which Greek yogurts you might want to avoid. The straining process used to create traditional Greek yogurt removes both whey and lactose, which brings the sugar count down. For example, Dannon Oikos Greek Nonfat Plain Yogurt contains six grams of sugar per 5.3-ounce serving. Compared to Dannon Lowfat Plain Yogurt, that's 40 percent less sugar per 5.3-ounce serving. Plain Greek yogurt should also contain no added sugar, keeping the sugar total from spiraling out of control. However, flavors and other varieties can be an entirely different story.

Chobani "Flips" are a perfect example. This product line features flavored Greek yogurt packaged with accompanying toppings that are meant to be "flipped" and stirred into the yogurt. Many "Flips" are packed with sugar. For example, the Peanut Butter Dream "Flip"—which combines vanilla low-fat Greek yogurt with honey roasted peanuts, peanut butter clusters and milk chocolate—serves up 23 grams of sugar per serving, the same amount you'd find in eight Starburst Fruit Chews! Americans, on the whole, eat way too much sugar. Overconsumption of sugar has been liked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, heart disease and even cancer. The average American eats 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day, nearly triple the recommended limit. A quick way to ruin Greek yogurt's strong nutritional profile is by mixing in a bunch of added sugar.

What About Fat?

Greek yogurt can be found in full-fat, low-fat and fat-free varieties. Obviously, the full-fat varieties contain the most fat. A seven-ounce serving of Fage Total (their full-fat offering) contains 190 calories, 10 grams of fat and 7 grams of saturated fat, while a seven-ounce serving of Fage Total 0% (their fat-free offering) contains 100 calories and 0 grams of fat. Both varieties offer 18 grams of protein per serving. The only difference in their ingredients is that the full-fat variety uses whole milk and the fat-free variety uses skim milk.

It might seem that the fat-free offering is the obvious choice, but there are some other factors to consider. For one, the fat in milk is where many of its natural nutrients are concentrated. "The fat content of milk is where many of its nutrients are located, such as vitamin A, vitamin K2 and omega-3 fatty acids. When you remove the fat to create skim milk, you're removing a lot of those nutrients, as well," says Brian St. Pierre, RD and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition.

In addition, the fat found in whole milk can keep you full for longer. Perhaps that's why a 2013 review published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that "high-fat dairy consumption within typical dietary patterns is inversely associated with obesity risk." The authors of the review concluded that the "observational evidence does not support the hypothesis that dairy fat or high-fat dairy foods contribute to obesity or cardiometabolic risk."

If you can afford extra calories in your diet, there's little issue in consuming full-fat varieties of Greek yogurt. Not only are they higher in nutrients and healthy fat, but they can also better keep you satiated throughout the day. Plus, they usually taste richer. If you think you're already getting enough fat in other areas of your diet, you certainly can go with the low-fat or fat-free varieties. You know your own health goals, but fat-free, low-fat and full-fat varieties of Greek yogurt all have the potential to be a part of a healthy diet.

The Verdict

Woman enjoying Greek yogurt

Is Greek yogurt healthy? Yes. If you purchase authentic Greek yogurt made with quality ingredients, you're buying a very nutritious food. It's not only typically lower in sugar than regular yogurt, it also usually contains roughly twice as much protein. Add the fact that it's high in calcium (key for strong bones and optimal heart, nerve and muscle function) and vitamin B-12 (which helps create red blood cells, maintain healthy nerve cells and produce DNA and RNA), and it's clear that Greek yogurt is a nutritional winner. Just steer clear of the varieties that are chock full of added sugar.

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