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Culture Class

Getting to know your yogourt


Culture Class

Balkan, Greek, stirred, non-fat, full-fat, or fruit on the bottom? We eliminate the confusion, so you can choose the perfect yogourt for you

Yogourt has come a long way in 8,000 years, since nomads accidentally cultured the milk in their goatskin bags by exposing it to wild bacteria. Today, the yogourt section of a typical grocery store offers an overwhelming number of choices with a variety of benefits. Balkan or stirred? Non-fat or full-fat? Plain or pina colada?

Yogourt production 101

Yogourt, both ancient and modern, is the product of bacteria acting on milk. Only certain bacteria are up to the job, however. The ones used to make yogourt include the gut-friendly Streptococcus salivarius subspecies thermophilus and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus, with optional species such as the well-known Lactobacillus acidophilus.

When these bacteria are added to warm milk, they consume the natural milk sugars and produce lactic acid as a byproduct. The acid causes the proteins to coagulate, resulting in a delicious food that you can scoop up with a spoon.

It’s in the probiotics

Sara Gebriel, a registered holistic nutritionist and educator, says the prime health benefit of yogourt is related to probiotics, the living micro-organisms that populate the product.

“Probiotics are the healthy flora in our gut, in our large intestine,” says Gebriel. “Essentially, the more the merrier.” A yogourt’s expiry date may give a clue to how many probiotics it contains, because the longer it sits on a store shelf, the more probiotics die off. And if the label specifies the yogourt has been heat-treated after culturing, it contains no viable bacteria.

The benefits of probiotics are myriad—certain strains have been shown to help immunity, colon health, vitamin production, and allergies. Moreover, science labs around the world are constantly discovering new ways in which bacteria can do a body good.

Gebriel notes that the health benefits of yogourt don’t stop at probiotics. Aside from its high protein content, she says, “There’s quite a broad mineral profile. Calcium is probably the most famous.” Other minerals in yogourt include magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and selenium.

Yogourt for diabetes maintenance

Yogourt can play an important role in the diets of people living with diabetes. It even goes beyond the food’s low glycemic load.

“Sometimes a condition of diabetes will also go along with a condition of dysbiosis or some kind of intestinal gut imbalance,” says Gebriel. “If that’s the case, then I want to bring yogourt in [to] to help bring in more healthful bacteria ... it’s about bringing in higher numbers of the good bacteria so that it wins out over the bad bacteria, so to speak.”

Recent scientific studies are strengthening the link between diabetes and disturbance of the gut microflora. Studies with both humans and animals have found that, in genetically susceptible individuals, alterations in the healthy population of gut bacteria can trigger a cascade of effects that promotes the development of type 1 diabetes.

Get the good stuff

So, with considerable evidence for the importance of healthy intestinal flora, the question remains: which yogourt will end up in your shopping basket?

Gebriel advises her clients, including those with diabetes, to reach for a plain, full-fat yogourt. She feels full-fat versions offer the best quality, so people can cut back on quantity.

“A lot of flavour is in the fat; a lot of the sense of satiety is in the fat. People are more likely to be eating less of the regular-fat versions than the low-fat versions because they’ll feel satisfied more readily,” she says. In her experience, this contributes to stabilized blood sugar in diabetics.

Gebriel suggests eating yogourt with fresh fruit and, if desired, a drizzle of honey or maple syrup. “To me, it comes down to good quality, plain yogourt,” she says. “Add your own stuff.”

Skip the extras

Check the ingredients list for these unnecessary extras.


Yogourts, particularly low-fat and non-fat varieties, often include ingredients such as milk powder and milk protein concentrate in order to increase the solids content without adding fat. The trade-off, though, is a chalkier taste.


Manufacturers often put a sweet spin on plain yogourt by adding glucose, fructose, or non-nutritive sweeteners such as sucralose. Fruit preparations in yogourt can contain more than 50 percent sugar.


Gelatin, cellulose gum, whey protein concentrate, and carrageenans may be added to improve yogourt texture and prevent the appearance of whey, the watery substance that sometimes appears on top of the solid yogourt curd. While this “wheying-off” may be undesirable from a manufacturing standpoint, whey is rich in minerals and can be consumed on its own after being poured or strained out of the yogourt.

Shop the yogourt aisle with confidence

Not all yogourts are created equal. Look for these different styles in the dairy case.

Balkan-style or set-style

To make this yogourt, the cultured milk is poured directly into the containers that you later find on store shelves. The yogourt settles into the shape of its container, ready to be broken up when the first person digs in. Fruit-on-the-bottom yogourt is simply a set-style yogourt with a fruit preparation trapped underneath.

Greek-style or Mediterranean-style

This thick and creamy yogourt, which is spiking in popularity across Canada, is obtained by straining or centrifuging regular yogourt.

Stirred or Swiss-style

The most common form of yogourt, it is prepared in a vat, mixed with a flavour preparation (10 to 20 percent of the yogourt by weight) and dispensed into smaller containers. It is thinner than other styles of yogourt.

Find the fat content of your yogourt


Before thickeners are added, the milk fat content of this yogourt is less than 0.5%.


The milk fat of this product before the addition of thickeners is between 0.5% and 2%.


This yogourt is made with whole milk, which may contain 3.25% or more milk fat. Some companies offer a product made from non-homogenized whole milk.



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