Is This Yogurt?

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Katja Jylkka

Katja Jylkka › Katja Jylkka teaches English at a private high school in the Hudson River Valley. She recently ...


Making yogurt at home is actually very simple. All you need, really, is milk and the right kind of bacteria and you have the ingredients for a nutritious food. Making yogurt for thousands of people as part of an industrialized process that rewards the cheapest modes of production has complicated that recipe, ultimately requiring that yogurt be given a “standard of identity.”

A standard of identity is a legally enforceable definition of a food product listed by the United States Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), and is why Kraft Singles have to be called a “pasteurized prepared cheese product” instead of just “cheese.” The definition of yogurt also lists a number of ingredients that may legally be added (i.e. some thickeners, fruit flavorings, etc.). Greek yogurt, however, has no standard of identity, a fact that has been recently muddying the waters of the dairy industry.

The lack of a standard of identity for Greek-style yogurt, which is traditionally made in the Balkans by straining out all the extra whey from yogurt, is at the root of a current lawsuit against General Mills, owner of the Yoplait brand. Trying to gain a portion of the thriving Greek yogurt market, Yoplait came out with its own version of the popular protein-rich dairy product in 2010. This Greek yogurt is the object a class action lawsuit that claims that the food is “neither Greek yogurt, nor yogurt.”

Yoplait’s Greek yogurt is only one example of the ways that companies are trying to increase profits and add value to this essentially simple product. These procedures include adding ingredients to speed up production and to stabilize yogurt’s shelf life, some of which need a little explaining. The following ingredients are some of the least recognizable on your average cup of yogurt from the supermarket:

Milk Protein Concentrate (MPC) – To make MPC, milk is ultra-filtered, getting rid of all the liquid and only leaving the larger molecules, mostly protein. MPC therefore has a high protein content and thickening properties. Yoplait and other companies, rather than using the authentic technique of straining their yogurt to make it “Greek,” add MPC instead to increase protein and imitate the style’s thick creaminess. MPC, while not on the FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list, is not definitively off it either (see some explanation of that confusing status here).

MPCs are not included among the possible ingredients that may be legally added to yogurt according to its standard of identity. This regulation is why the lawsuit against Yoplait claims that Yoplait’s Greek yogurt is not, in fact, yogurt at all. The problem with MPCs lies also in where they come from. The majority of MPCs used in the US are imported, as there are “very low or non-existent tariffs,” and overall very little oversight into the quality of the imported powder. Such circumstances have led to fears of contamination or adulteration in the MPCs and decreased profits for American dairy farmers.

Malic & citric acid – Both malic acid and citric acid (or sodium citrate) are naturally found in fruit and have a sour, tart taste. They are often added to halt bacterial growth so that the yogurt doesn’t overcultivate its own bacteria, but also help to enhance the food’s tartness.

Probiotic bacteria – Two years ago, Dannon was sued over its health claims about its Activia brand – remember, “scientifically proven” to help regulate your digestive tract and strengthen the immune system? Although studies have shown that some probiotic strains can reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, there is still no proof that their consumption affects the immune system. Although Dannon had to pay $35 million in its settlement, it and other companies such as Stonyfield still sell probiotic yogurts (at a higher price than normal yogurt, of course).

Carrageenan – Carrageenan is a food additive derived from a certain red seaweed. Added to dairy products like yogurt, it creates a gel-like texture that can help replicate the “mouth-feel” of full fat products and prevents the product from separating. Carrageenan is on the GRAS list, yet there are concerns about its possible carcinogenic properties and effects on the digestive tract.

Some brands that seem to steer clear of these kinds of additives include Fage, Chobani, and Dannon’s All Natural line. Hopefully this list helps you to decide for yourself what you want to eat and how much you’re willing to pay for it.

Do you know what’s in your yogurt?

Photo Credit: Tomiko Peirano