Light yogurt, like other "diet" foods, is losing its place at the cool kids' table. Should you make the change too?

By Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN
Updated: October 10, 2016
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After decades of light yogurt commercials telling us that minimal calories and fat will lead us to a blissful, skinny existence, consumers are turning away from "diet" foods in favor of more satisfying options that fit a shifting outlook on what "healthy" really means. Millennials (those born between 1982 and 1993) are buying less light yogurt than ever before. According to recent Nielsen data, light yogurt sales fell 8.5 percent in the past year, dropping from about $1.2 billion to $1 billion. Yogurt industry sales, in general, have declined 1.5 percent, making it the fourth consecutive year of falling sales.

What's up with that? Isn't yogurt a healthy food?

Yogurt does boast some benefits. It's high in protein, calcium, and probiotic bacteria. But there are so many types of yogurt that things can get confusing. A lot of the so-called "healthy" low-fat and fat-free light yogurt options, for example, are packed with sugar and artificial colors and flavors. The rising popularity of dairy-free diets has also led folks to seek out plant-based alternatives.

So what yogurt should you buy?

To get the most nutritional bang for your buck, opt for low-fat or full-fat yogurt over fat-free. Aside from feeling more satisfied for longer (fat slows digestion), you'll more effectively absorb the fat-soluble nutrients in the yogurt-like vitamins A and D. Strained varieties like Greek yogurt and Icelandic skyr also provide more protein. Kefir, a drinkable yogurt beverage, is also great. Because of the fermentation process, it tends to be very low in lactose, which means it may be suitable for those with lactose intolerance.

Scope out labels to weed out added sugar and artificial sweeteners. If you just can't do plain yogurt, aim for a flavored variety with the least amount of sugar possible. Keep in mind there's some naturally present lactose in yogurt (about 12 grams per 8-ounce cup of regular plain yogurt-so about 9 grams in a 6-ounce container-and a bit less than that in strained varieties), so subtract that from the grams of total sugar listed on the label. You can also play around with adding your own flavor to plain yogurt with cinnamon, jam, or even just a teaspoon of honey or maple syrup.

Why are "light" and "diet" foods becoming less popular?

Consumers' perception of "healthy" is changing. Though low-fat diets were the star of the show in the '80s and '90s, more recent research on the different types of fats, the importance of fiber, and the negative effects of high sugar intake have prompted consumers-millennials, in particular-to prioritize high-protein and organic options. Millennials with young children have become the top purchasers of organic food. In the past five years, sales of weight-loss staples like frozen meals and shakes have plummeted as consumers focus less on low-fat and low-calorie foods and pay more attention to claims like "natural," "non-GMO," "gluten-free," and "vegan." They're also concerned about additives like preservatives and food dyes.

A 2015 survey of over 2,000 people found that 94 percent of respondents no longer saw themselves as dieters and 77 percent reported that diet foods were not as healthy as they claimed to be. To add fuel to the fire, a new study reported that the sugar industry paid off scientists in the 1960s to point the finger at saturated fat and downplay the link between sugar and heart disease.

The Food and Drug Administration isn't even really so sure what "healthy" means anymore. Last year, KIND filed a Citizen Petition with the FDA after being told by the agency they couldn't use the term "healthy" on their nut bars , which are high in (healthy) fats, but also high in fiber and protein and low in added sugars, when compared to many other "healthy" products on the market. The company's line of Nut & Spice bars, for example, has less than 5 grams of sugar per serving. As of May 2016, the FDA allowed the company to resume using the label. Now, as the FDA prepares to rework its definition of "healthy," the agency recently opened up the topic to the public for discussion, inviting consumers to comment.

I'm all about this shift. Lifestyle diet approaches like the Mediterranean diet, Paleo diet, and DASH diet have us wanting to feel great and look great rather than counting calories and white-knuckling our way to a number on the scale. "Healthy" doesn't have to mean hangry!" Hallelujah.

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