Homemade Yogurt

One of the most common foods I see parents feed to babies and young children is yogurt.  And while I agree that the probiotics and other nutrients are great for little ones, I am a bit confused by the popularity of sugar and additive filled varieties specifically marketed to kids.  Have you ever looked at the ingredient lists on some of these yogurts?  Many are a mile long, with tons of sugar, flavorings, stabilizers, and colors.

I know some of you are wondering, “what’s so wrong with sugar”?  When I was growing up, sugar was considered to be “empty calories”, meaning not necessary, but also not inherently harmful.  Unfortunately, recent research is suggesting that sugar might not be so innocent after all.  Some of the findings include links to Type II diabetes, weight gain, unhealthy cholesterol levels, heart disease, and tooth decay.  In fact, some argue that sugar possesses addictive qualities similar to cocaine!  Do I think that sugar is evil and we should avoid it at all costs?  No, but I do think there’s enough evidence that it’s potentially harmful to make efforts to consume it in small amounts and reserve sugary foods for occasional treats.

So how much added sugar should we eat?   According to the American Heart Association, children should have no more than 3 teaspoons, women 6 teaspoons, and men 9 teaspoons per day.  And how much do we actually eat?  Here are some reference points for “healthy” foods:

  • 1 slice of Arnold 100% Whole Wheat Bread: 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 (2-bar) pouch Nature Valley Oat & Honey Granola Bars: 3 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 cup GoLean Crunch cereal: 3 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 20-ounce bottle vitaminwater attention: nearly 8 teaspoons sugar

None of these foods have natural sugars in them, so the amount of added sugar is easy to calculate (take the sugar grams on the nutrition label and divide by 4 to get the number of teaspoons).  But foods like yogurt are a little more complicated because of the naturally occurring sugar (lactose) in the milk.  So to figure out how much extra sugar there is, I compared Stonyfield Farms plain yogurt with their vanilla version.  How many extra teaspoons of sugar do you think there are beyond the naturally occurring sugar present in plain yogurt?  I’ll give you a minute to guess.  Think about if you had plain yogurt and were adding spoonfuls of sugar to sweeten it.

The answer is that there is a whopping FOUR TEASPOONS of added sugar in 1 cup of vanilla yogurt.  That’s more than a child should have in a whole day, and more than the amount in three Oreo cookies.  (Note that it’s possible that fruit flavored yogurts have slightly less added sugar due to the natural sweetness of the fruit, but most fruit versions have sugar listed long before fruit in the ingredient lists, and may only contain fruit in the form of fruit juice concentrate, aka sugar!).  Do you think you actually need 4 teaspoons to make plain yogurt enjoyable?  I highly doubt it, but food manufacturers know that for most people, the sweeter the better, and they can sell more product if they load it up.

The impact of this is twofold – first, if you believe the research demonstrating that sugar is actually harmful to our bodies, you are contributing to long term health issues by serving this food which is generally perceived as healthy.  And second, foods like this train our tastebuds to prefer sweet foods, meaning not only do we need increasingly sweeter foods over time to satisfy cravings, but naturally sweet foods like fruit become less exciting, and bitter or more complex flavors are even less appealing.  This is incredibly important as we try to help our children develop a taste for a wide variety of real foods, since something as simple as serving flavored yogurt might be undermining our efforts to teach our children to enjoy fruits and vegetables.

If I’ve convinced you that flavored yogurt might not be the best choice, let’s talk about where to go from here.  The obvious answer is to buy plain yogurt and sweeten it at home if necessary.  I’d be willing to bet there are very few people (even kids!) who would need 4 full teaspoons of sugar in every cup to make it enjoyable – a spoonful of honey or maple syrup, jam, or even some fresh or frozen fruit can make a big difference.  By sweetening at home, you know exactly what you’re getting, plus over time you can slowly reduce the amount and  learn to appreciate the tangy creamy taste of the yogurt itself.

So if it’s that easy to just buy plain yogurt, why would I recommend taking the next step and making it at home?  Well, for one thing, it’s pretty cool to see milk turn into yogurt!  But that aside, there are 2 other really good reasons to make it yourself – cost and quality.

First, cost.  The (admittedly pricey) organic whole milk from grass-fed cows I buy is $6.29 per gallon, or $0.39/cup.  From the same store, a quart of Stonyfield Farm Organic Plain Yogurt is $3.89, or $0.97/cup – more than double the price!  Now if you’re buying the individually packaged YoBaby cups, the price at my store is $2.69 for 4 4-oz cups, or $1.34/cup, more than triple the price of the homemade version.  My family goes through a lot of yogurt, so this is a real savings for us over time.

Second, quality, which is a direct follow-up to cost.  Even the organic plain yogurt in the store often still contains additives (thickeners, stabilizers, etc.) and is certainly not made from grass-fed milk, which is more nutritious.  So I am able to buy the best quality milk I can, skip the additives, and still pay a third of the price of the YoBaby, all for a few extra minutes in the kitchen.  If your budget or your values do not lead you to organic or grass-fed milk, you can still save a lot of money by making yogurt yourself, possibly making room for an upgrade in quality.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m willing to guess you’re at least intrigued enough to learn what it takes to make yogurt at home!  Honestly, I could have never imagined it was so simple.  While it takes about 12-15 hours total time, the active time is roughly 5 minutes.  Seriously.  The hardest part is just remembering that you have yogurt going in the kitchen!  There are many other methods for making yogurt, including the use of thermometers or yogurt-making machines, but the process I follow is so simple and gives me at least a 90% success rate (with the 10% “fails” just resulting in thinner yogurt), so I’m not inclined to complicate at all.

I hope I’ve inspired you to give it a try, and please feel free to leave any questions or results in the comments!


2 Responses to Homemade Yogurt

  1. Ann Bedichek says:

    I LOVE this post!! I learned so much!!!

    (Even though I was already on the making-yogurt-bandwagon :))

    I suppose the only thing I’d add is that in my opinion homemade yogurt is also way tastier than what you can get in the story. Like eating pure freshness!

    • Alissa says:

      Thanks Ann! I think you were the first person I ever knew who actually made yogurt at home, and back then I thought you were crazy…who knew I’d end up coming around so completely 🙂 And yes, I totally agree…I’m actually not a huge yogurt fan in general, but love the yogurt I make at home!

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