Yogurt Buying Guide: Unsweetened Yogurts - Feeding Littles

Yogurt Buying Guide: Unsweetened Yogurts

Confused by yogurt?

You’re not alone. One of the most popular questions in our Facebook Group and on our Instagram account is “What kind of yogurt should I buy for my baby or child?” If you go to almost any US grocery store you could spend hours in the yogurt aisle comparing different brands, yogurt styles (Greek versus traditional versus European?), flavors and container sizes. Oh, and some of them are much more expensive than others. We’re here to help clear up some confusion.

Head to the end of this post to download our Yogurt Buying Guide Quick Reference sheet and our full four-page Yogurt Breakdown table that compares dozens of dairy-based and non-dairy yogurts by store availability, price, and nutritional content.

In general, we recommend looking for two key qualities when buying yogurt for babies and young children:

  • Plain or unsweetened yogurt – no sugar added (more on this confusing issue below)
  • Made from whole milk (also known as full fat or 4-5% milk)

As you might know, we take a pretty realistic approach to added sugar – it can be a normal, tasty part of our kid’s food landscape as they get older. However, many babies and toddlers do enjoy unsweetened yogurt and don’t know the difference. Read on for more.

First, let’s talk about some common issues and misconceptions surrounding yogurt.

#1. Why yogurt?

As a dietitian I like yogurt for many reasons. It’s one of the few cultured, or probiotic-filled foods that many kids regularly eat, and it is a palatable and easy way for kiddos to get calcium, protein, and calories into their diet. Yogurt has been associated with a variety of health benefits, including improvement to digestion and immune system and prevention of bone loss. Physicians regularly recommend probiotics for digestive conditions like diarrhea, constipation, and GI infections, as well as during and after antibiotic use or during yeast infections. We recommend yogurt for babies 6+ months in our BLW online course and older children in our toddler online course.

Yogurt is made when bacteria cultures are applied to milk or a milk alternative. These beneficial bacteria convert the milk into lactic acid, which changes the consistency and thickness of the milk. Most yogurts are made from cow’s milk, but we have also found yogurt options from sheep/goat’s milk and yogurts made from non-dairy sources. Our Yogurt Breakdown at the end of this post will help you find specific brands and stores who carry them.

Even if your kiddo doesn’t tolerate fluid cow’s milk, she may be able to eat yogurt made from cow’s milk. Otherwise, goat’s or sheep’s milk may be an option, as may non-dairy yogurts. The beneficial bacteria and fermentation process can greatly aid in tolerance of yogurt versus straight cow’s milk. I see this all the time with clients young and old – many can’t drink fluid cow’s milk but do just fine with yogurt.

#2. Live and active cultures…?

The most beneficial yogurt is made from live and active bacteria cultures and is not heat treated after the fermentation process (the milk is, however, pasteurized before fermentation to remove potential pathogenic bacteria). To help consumers find which yogurts contain these live and active cultures, the National Yogurt Association has created a Live and Active Cultures ​seal.

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​However, this labeling program is voluntary, and many yogurts contain live and active cultures (with the required 100 million cultures per gram required for the seal) without participating in this labeling program. Above all else, look at the ingredient list for presence of these bacteria and words like “contains live and active cultures.” Read more about this labeling program here.

#3. Why is yogurt so high in sugar?

Note: before discussing sugar, I want to caveat one thing – we are all about balance and realism around food here at Feeding Littles. We don’t think sugar is inherently “bad” and feel that there’s definitely some room for it in the diet. Worrying too much about sugar may actually increase your tot’s likelihood to obsess over it and binge on it when it’s finally available. We have a post all about it here. However, since some kiddos start with unsweetened yogurt as babies and get used to that taste, there’s no harm in continuing to offer unsweetened or minimally sweetened yogurts (aka sweetened at home with fruit puree, maple syrup, honey {for kids over 1}, etc.), as these can be very tasty and satisfying to many children. We recommend unsweetened yogurt from the start for this reason.

Parents are oftentimes very confused by how much “sugar” is in yogurt. This gets a little confusing because yogurt (and other dairy products) contain lactose, which is a type of sugar. It’s inherent in milk and yogurt and is part of that food. Similarly, fruit and breast milk also contain sugars that make up those foods.

So, yogurt will contain “sugar” even if it’s unsweetened. It will contain more sugar if it’s unsweetened. It doesn’t mean either are “unhealthy.”

To know how much sugar is added to your yogurt, check the line “Including _____ g added sugar.” ​You will also see sugar or other sweeteners on the ingredient list of sweetened yogurt. When in doubt, to avoid added sugar in yogurt, choose plain yogurts. Anything flavored will, for the most part, be sweetened, including vanilla and strawberry yogurts. Unsweetened yogurt will be more tart than sweetened yogurt, but you may be able to doctor it up with fruit, vanilla extract, cinnamon etc. for more flavor.

For simplicity’s sake, we’ve kept this entire post and downloadables included in this post all about unsweetened yogurt. Remember that unsweetened yogurt is appropriate for all ages and can be substituted for sour cream in many recipes, so it’s a nice addition to your kitchen. You can always flavor it for yourself if your kiddo eats plain but you like sweetened/flavored.

#4. But I thought low-fat dairy was better…

The low-fat craze of the 90s has trained us to think that low-fat and fat-free foods are still ideal. However, science suggests otherwise. According to recent research, full-fat dairy is associated with a lower risk of diabetes, healthier HDL cholesterol levels, GI health (due to a specific fatty acid called butyric acid), and overall lower sugar intake. Furthermore, data about dairy intake now suggests that full-fat dairy doesn’t increase the risk of heart disease as we once thought. Many of my clients feel much more satisfied and less blood sugar “crash-y” after eating full fat yogurt and cheese.

Full-fat yogurt (4-5% or higher) is especially important for babies and toddlers. However, if you cannot find it at your store, try to use a reduced-fat option.

Just a few years ago it was nearly impossible to find whole milk yogurt at a grocery store, let alone whole milk plain yogurt. Fortunately manufacturers are noticing that consumers are no longer fearing fat and want more whole milk options, and as you can see from the Yogurt Breakdown below, there are now many, many types of whole fat unsweetened yogurt.

Since we recommend whole milk yogurt for babies (6+ months), toddlers, children and adults barring specific health or medical issues, we have only included full-fat options in this guide.

#5. To Greek or not to Greek?

Greek yogurt is all the rage because of it’s higher protein content and thick consistency. We love Greek yogurt for babies and toddlers because it sticks better to loaded NumNum GOOtensils or loaded spoons and is easier to pick up with their hands. The Greek yogurt we eat in the US is usually called “strained yogurt” in the rest of the world because it’s yogurt that’s strained an additional time to remove more whey, liquid and milk sugars. What’s left is a thicker, higher-protein, lower naturally-occurring sugar yogurt. However, since the term “Greek yogurt” isn’t regulated, some manufacturers skip this straining step and use thickeners like corn starch to make their yogurt seem like Greek yogurt without the added protein. (Note: many non-dairy yogurts are made with thickeners to mimic the consistency of cow’s milk yogurt because this consistency is hard to achieve with non-dairy milks.)

In general, Greek yogurt will have more protein and less milk sugar and will have a thicker, creamier texture. However, it requires 4 oz of milk to create 1 oz of yogurt, and the creation of Greek yogurt results in excess whey as a byproduct (which can be hard to dispose of), so we recommend buying both Greek and “traditional” yogurt.

You may have also seen Icelandic, European, French and Australian yogurt on the shelves. In general, the process to create this yogurt is the same – fermentation by bacteria, then straining. Usually they differ in how much they’re strained and in their thickness/nutrient content.

#6. Do I need to buy organic yogurt?

There is a lot of debate surrounding organic and conventionally-raised animals, and thus any product made by them. The USDA requires that certified organic dairy comes from cows who have not been treated with antibiotics, have not been given growth or reproductive hormones, and have received at least 30% of their diet from pasture. The rest of their feed must be organic. Organic milk products may have more omega-3 fatty acids, but the science is still out as to whether organic is better. Many parents choose organic for environmental reasons or a worry about pesticides and how the food is made, but again…we don’t know if it’s necessarily better. What we do know is that organic products usually carry a much steeper price tag. In the end, the choice is yours. I buy both, depending on availability and price.

#7. What about baby yogurt?

You do not have to buy baby yogurt if you don’t want to. Baby or toddler yogurt is usually whole milk sweetened yogurt in small containers – nothing special or baby-specific about it. It tends to be more expensive ounce per ounce than yogurt in larger containers. Some parents find it convenient if they themselves don’t eat yogurt and want smaller containers to prevent food waste, but there’s no need to buy baby yogurt if you don’t want to.

#8 What about protein?

A lot of parents serve yogurt as a convenient way to add protein to their kiddo’s diet. Yes, protein is an essential nutrient, but kids need a lot less than most of us think. In fact, many 1-3 year olds only need about 13 grams per day (the amount in about 2 eggs).

If you’re dealing with a picky eater or a child who needs help in the growth department, a higher protein yogurt – like a Greek yogurt – might be really helpful.

Extra protein is usually not a problem as long as kids are drinking lots of water. In fact, most toddlers eat more protein than they need to meet their minimum needs for growth and function.

Our Yogurt Buying Quick Reference

To help cut down on confusion at the grocery store, we’ve created a one-page guide that may help you find some of our favorite products at your local store. This guide includes some of our favorite brands (dairy and non-dairy), the highest-protein and highest-calorie yogurts for kids that may need help in these areas, and some ways to flavor or enhance yogurt. Click the link below the image to download the file, or save it to your phone, pin it to Pinterest, and share!

Please note: we are sharing yogurts we found at 5 different grocery stores in Arizona. Availability will vary based on your grocery store options.

Yogurt Breakdown

To further help you find where to buy your favorite yogurts and how they break down by nutrition and price, check out our four-page Yogurt Breakdown by clicking the link below the photo. Pages 1 and 2 include cow’s milk yogurt; page 3 is goat’s milk and sheep’s milk yogurt; and page 4 contains non-dairy yogurt.

Note: our amazing intern Sarah went to five popular stores in Arizona. Availability will vary depending on your store options and location. Price reflects the price as of Spring 2018 and may vary as by location.

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