Thursday, January 6, 2011

Against Yogurt

I like yogurt.  I grew up eating yogurt. I wanted to buy some today.

Today found me in QFC staring with rising dismay into the dairy case as I attempted to buy a reasonable and affordable amount of vanilla yogurt, preferrably with some fat* in it and not too many extraneous weird things.

That ought to be simple, yes?  There were squillions of choices, surely one would make me happy. 

Americans seem to view yogurt as a "health" food.   Or should I say "health" "food"?  Apparently if I just bought the right brand of yogurt, I would lose weight and have well regulated bowels.  My skin would clear up.   My sex appeal would abound.  My dishes would do themselves.  Claims are made about the active lives of the yogurt's cultures which would enable this miracle.

Unfortunately, I wanted yogurt because I think it tastes good, and I wanted to experiment with packing yogurt and granola as part of my lunch.   I wanted yogurt because it will help fill me up and give me energy to do things.  In short, I wanted yogurt as food, not as a tonic or patent medicine.

Most of the yogurt in my market segment* is fat free or lite (which is like fat free only without the sugar as well).  Not infrequently it comes in unholy flavors meant to mimic dessert: one can get apple pie yogurt, strawberry cheesecake yogurt, chocolate mousse yogurt, creme caramel yogurt, or even key lime pie yogurt.    Most all of the flavors, whether or not they are intended to mimic desserts, are packed with sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners to make up for the decrement in flavor that occurs when fat is removed.  Trading fat for sugar does not please me. Trading real sugar for something that breaks down to formaldehyde in my brain? The depths of my displeasure are as a canyon which no explorer may plumb nor any traveler cross. 

Low fat is alright, not my favorite**, but it has some flavor, less sugar, and less algae byproduct*** to create the creaminess that the fat skimmed out would otherwise impart.  Yogurt made from not-skim milk, and flavored with a moderate amount of sugar is increasingly hard to find, squeezed out of the market by the health claims of yogurt-like substances tarted up as desserts and packed with chemicals.  If Americans regarded yogurt as food rather than medication, I suspect that this would not be the case.

I had to read every single label in the case.  The Dannon All Natural line of yogurt appears promising... except that they did not have vanilla yogurt in the large container, or the small.  They had coffee yogurt, which was flavored with real coffee though.  I eventually settled for a quart of the Mountain High Vanilla, which is a known quantity****, even if it was slightly more than I wanted to pay.

I am not noticeably sexier. 

*There is fantastic yogurt on the market.  Yogurt that fills my heart with loving gluttony.  Unfortunately I cannot afford it as a regular thing.  If you want to know, my favorite brand is Greek Gods, with especial affection for the fig yogurt.

** There have probably been times in my life when my response to the world of food has not been "needs more fat"-- I'm not sure when they were.

***Carrageenan is seaweed extract, e.g. algae.  It's a common thickener, and commonly used to smooth textures that would otherwise be damaged by fat removal.  There's nothing exactly wrong with it, except when it goes bad.  Oh dear, I'm about to tell you why I don't buy fat free half-and-half.  Those of you who have already heard this story may want to roll your eyes and go back to the main essay right now.  Those of you with delicate sensibilities may wish to do likewise.

My excellent friend JVW was attempting to limit her fat intake.  To that end she had started buying fat free half-and-half.  It tasted fine.  The mouthfeel wasn't weird.  However, it was ultra-pasteurized (which I think involves gigantic lasers or something) so it had an unusually long shelf life.  JVW does not go through half-and-half particularly quickly.  One day six weeks or so later, she was pouring half-and-half into her tea, while I was nattering inconsequentially (probably, the ensuing event totally drove my thoughts from my mind).  The flow stopped, but the container still felt like it was about a third full.  This being the sort of condition that would raise questions in anyone's mind, we investigated.

Inside was a viscous, pink jelly.  Horror ensued.  Neither of us drank any more tea that night.
The carrageenan had fallen out of suspension, and begun acting like a bacterial culture.  A bright pink bacteria culture. 

****I'm ambivalent about crystalline fructose as a sweetener, but I know from experience that they don't use much. 


  1. Sarah dear, this is why you must learn to make your own yogurt. Of course, the consumer powers that be do not understand what constitutes real yogurt. As such, you must, as the Alaskan that you are, learn to do it yourself. Lessons freely and gladly given.

  2. Ooooooo... I want yogurt lessons. I still remember making jam with you as one of the better things about college.

  3. My solution for this is to purchase yogurt only once a month or so but then get a slightly more expensive brand (I haven't been able to bring myself to go for the Greek Gods yogurt yet, though). The cheaper stuff is so sugary and awful that these days it mostly makes me feel slightly sick. My current favorite is either the creamy yogurts at Trader Joes or else the Organic brand plain yogurt, into which I mix jam from Keri or her grandmother. That way I know that I can control the amount of sweetener, I can taste the yogurt without all of the added garbage (if it tastes awful plain, it's probably not going to be much better even if they add fake sugar and such), and I know that in the sweetener at least I'm getting real ingredients.