Wdowik nutrition column: Think yogurt for lunches and snacks

Note to Reporters: The following column was written by Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and director of the Kendall Anderson Nutrition Center.

As children head back to school, many parents are searching for ideas for lunches and after-school snacks. Yogurt is a popular option, with sales of more than $7 billion a year in the U.S. There is a growing body of evidence that it is a nutrition powerhouse, but there are also important precautions to keep it from being a decadent dessert.

First, its health benefits:

• Fermentation is the process used to turn milk into yogurt. The live bacteria created in this process are believed to influence the whole body’s immune response. How? The bacteria in the digestive tract send signals to immune cells in the intestinal lining, which then communicate with cells in the bloodstream; these activities may then influence one’s risk of infections and brain function, important for keeping kids (and adults) healthy.

• Live cultures in yogurt are also helpful for digestion. These probiotic bacteria, such as lactobacillus acidophilus, maintain the balance of organisms in the digestive tract by reducing the growth of harmful bacteria. This can reduce gas and bloating while promoting a healthy gut and digestion.

• Calcium is abundant in yogurt, and the acidity of yogurt makes it easier for the body to absorb it. Yogurt is also a generous source of vitamin D, potassium, and magnesium, all important for the health of the heart, bones, and brain yet typically low in the American diet.

• Protein is another essential nutrient in yogurt, contributing to the health of the brain, muscles, bones, skin, hair, and nails. Greek yogurt can be particularly valuable in this arena, with anywhere between 11 and 25 grams per serving.

Second, its drawbacks:

• Yogurt products marketed specifically to children often contain more sugar than fruit. Do not be distracted by the bold lettering that promises no high fructose corn syrup and no artificial colors or sweeteners. The ingredients list shows products such as Trix yogurt contain milk, sugar and corn starch, with traces of fruit or vegetable juice for color. With almost 3 teaspoons of sugar in a 4-ounce cup, these are almost as sweet as soda.

• Yogurt in squeezable form may sound convenient, but 2 teaspoons of sugar and lots of additives (even natural ones) make these more like cookies than milk.

• Flavored yogurts also contain high doses of sugar, unless they are artificially sweetened. How much sugar is OK? Plain unflavored yogurt has between 8 and 16 grams of sugar or carbohydrate per cup (6 to 12 grams per six-ounce container); this is the natural sugar from milk, while anything above that is from added sugars. I love coconut yogurt as much as anyone, but in what world does a blend of sugar, water, corn starch and coconut constitute a fruit? No fruit serving here, just an occasional treat.

• Nondairy yogurts made from soy, almond and coconut milks offer an alternative to anyone avoiding dairy, but many are more processed and have added sweeteners to make them taste and feel more like dairy. They are also sometimes less likely to be fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Be sure to read labels to get the most nutritious.

Yogurt can be a nutritious lunch and snack addition for children of all ages. The bottom line: reach for varieties high in protein and low in sugar, and beware cartoon characters.

Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, is an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and director of the Kendall Anderson Nutrition Center.