There has never been any debate that yogurt is a healthy food. Yogurt adds calcium and protein to the diet; can positively affect other health issues such as cholesterol, immunity and colon health; and is easier to digest than milk. Plain yogurt contains live bacteria that can regulate digestive issues and restore balance to a system thrown off by things like yeast infections or anti-biotics.
These good bacteria are known as pro-biotics, and occur naturally in plain yogurt made with live bacteria. However, once you get into sweetened or flavoured yogurt of any kind, the sugars kill off the live bacteria and the nutritional benefit is thought to be negligible.
Because food companies are always working to keep and increase their market share, and because our society seems to work on the theory that if a little of something can be helpful then a lot of something must be really, really great, processed foods have been popping up on the shelves of the dairy case touting the inclusion of pro and pre biotic bacteria.
The problem is – no one seems to have any proof that the added pro-biotics are doing anything. In California, a lawsuit has been launched against yogurt maker Dannon (Danone in Canada):
The lawsuit contends Dannon’s own studies failed to support its advertised claims that its Activia, Activia Lite and DanActive were “clinically” and “scientifically” “proven” to have health benefits that other yogurts did not.
Based on that lawsuit, Health Canada is now looking into the health claims as well. But the claims are worded so vaguely that it might be tough:
Danone claims its Activia yogurt with the bacteria B.L. regularis will “naturally regulate your slow intestinal transit,” while Kraft’s Liveactive brands are said to ”help you with your healthy lifestyle.”
Help you with your healthy lifestyle? If probiotics work as medicine to offset the effects of things like anti-biotics, then if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you likely don’t need added pro-biotics in your food. It’s never wise to take medicine to cure an illness you don’t have.
Not to mention the fact that most of these products are sweetened (likely destroying a lot of the probiotic cultures before the consumer can actually benefit from them), and processed beyond recognition to make them more palatable, because most people just don’t like plain, unflavoured yogurt.
If your yogurt is more like pudding or mousse, comes with sprinkles or candy, or in flavours more typical of cake or pie, or worse, in a tube, then all the pre and pro biotic claims are nothing more than a marketing ploy. Notice that all the ads seem to focus on women, with pretty swirly graphics overtop a buff and toned abdomen? Or how everyone is lively and dancing and happy? That’s not just coincidence. That’s Madison Avenue and Bay Street selling a dream. “If I eat this pro-biotic yogurt, I’ll be slim and pretty, I’ll never fart again, and my co-workers and I will wear colour-co-ordinated outfits and will spontaneously break into dance!”
By all means, eat plain yogurt if you like it. Add some fresh fruit or granola, use it in place of mayonnaise or sour cream. But don’t get suckered into the unsubstantiated claims that these pro-biotic products will cure what ails you. More importantly, don’t spend the extra cash for these products when the plain basic stuff is likely to do a better job.
Remember the 80s and oat bran – there is no magic food bullet. Good health (and spontaneous dancing) will not be achieved from a tub of over-priced, over-marketed yogurt.