Not many foods contain the nutritious trio of protein, probiotics and healthy fats—but yogurt does. And people can't get enough. The North American yogurt market churned up more than $11 billion in profits in 2015 and is expected to reach nearly $15 billion by 2024.
This yogurt boom explains why the dairy cooler at your local supermarket is now the size of a semitrailer. You have to choose from different flavors, fat percentages and even nationalities, including Greek, Icelandic and Australian yogurt varieties. The dairy-free options of yogurt—soy, coconut, cashew, almond and more—are also vast.
But which one is the healthiest?
To answer this, you must get comfortable with a little uncertainty. The research needed to back up specific health benefits of yogurt has not kept pace with all this innovation. Crowning a yogurt champ would require many years of data on how eating each impacts a person’s risk for diabetes and heart disease, says Walter Willett, a professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. We don’t have anything like that, so what you’re about to read is educated guesswork.
Disclaimers aside, you can probably eliminate most of the dairy-free options from title contention. With the exception of soy yogurt, dairy-free products tend to contain very little appetite-suppressing protein, says Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian and New York-based nutrition and wellness coach.
While some research suggests soy yogurt may outperform dairy when it comes to limiting risk for diabetes, soy-based yogurts tends to be thinner and less savory than milk-based products. To improve their taste and texture, manufacturers often load them up with additives—including sugar—making them not so great for you.
Among the dairy options, Greek and Icelandic varieties stand out for a few reasons, Rumsey says. Both are strained to remove excess whey, which is an acidic liquid composed mostly of water, lactose (milk sugar) and minerals. While some research suggests that whey can help knock down blood sugar spikes if you’re eating a lot of carbohydrates, straining out the whey gives these types of yogurt their super-thick textures and high amounts of protein per serving, she says.
That satisfyingly thick texture can make Greek and Icelandic yogurts taste better without a lot of additives. Not all health experts are convinced Americans need to pack more protein into their diets. But for now, protein-loaded yogurts seem like healthy additions and good ways to quell hunger.
In terms of probiotics, there’s no real way to differentiate between Icelandic and Greek varieties. “It depends on the individual product,” says Martin Wiedmann, a professor of food science at Cornell University. Different yogurt brands contain different bacteria strains. And even if you can identify the types in your yogurt, there’s no consensus when it comes to the health benefits of each type, Wiedmann says.
The main difference between Icelandic and Greek yogurt is the fat content. “Most Icelandic yogurt is only made with non-fat milk, resulting in a 0% fat yogurt,” Rumsey says. However, a growing body of research shows that people who eat full-fat milk products tend to be slimmer and healthier than those who opt for low- or no-fat dairy. Experts say the fatty acids found in full-fat dairy may control hunger and shift metabolism in healthy ways. For these reasons, Ramsey says she recommends 2% or full-fat yogurt. While they may be trickier to find, some types of Icelandic yogurt have added cream to pump up their fat content, she says.
There is, therefore, a tie for first place. Existing nutrition evidence suggests that a fat-rich, protein-loaded Icelandic or Greek yogurt is your best choice.
Whether you’re buying one of those or something else, the most important thing is to choose a product without a lot of additives or a long list of ingredients, Rumsey says. Skip the fruit- or flavor-infused varieties, which tend to be loaded with sugar. If you want fruit in your yogurt, you’re much better off adding your own.