Culture Clash: D.I.Y. Yogurt vs. Mass Market

by Sarah Henry on April 20, 2012 · 20 comments

in food businesses,food research,frugal gourmet,grist,recipes

Nishanga Bliss, a holistic health practitioner, has been making her own yogurt on and off since the 1980s. She learned from a Swiss neighbor, liked the results, and was delighted to avoid accumulating all those plastic containers.

The author of Real Food All Year, who also teaches yogurt-making classes, recommends making this cultured dairy product with whole milk. “When you make your own you can tinker with the taste and texture,” says Bliss. Another advantage of DIY yogurt: It can ferment longer than commercial products, thus eliminating all the lactose, which is beneficial for those with an intolerance.

Bliss is among a growing group of people who are rethinking buying industrial versions of popular health foods — such as yogurt — in favor of making their own with minimal processing and additives. Bliss believes the beneficial bacteria in yogurt — also known as probiotics— can do your gut a world of good, by protecting against intestinal infections and enhancing immune functioning.

Yogurt was introduced to the mainstream American palate back in 1942, when Dannonstarted producing European-style cultured milk. But it had so few takers for its tart taste that five years later the company began adding fruit to the mix to entice more customers.

These days, it’s not just fruit that’s found in those plastic tubs, but also sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors, as well as thickeners, stabilizers, and preservatives.

The culture wars

In fact, most yogurt has become a highly industrialized food. Consider the color-saturated stuff sold in garish plastic tubes designed to grab the attention of children (and their parents). In an NPR interview about his book Food Rules, author Michael Pollan describes his “don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” test to determine whether this yogurt is even food. Here’s his take on the popular portable product known as Go-Gurt:

Imagine your grandmother or your great-grandmother picking up this tube, holding it up to the light, trying to figure out how to administer it to her body — if indeed it is something that goes in your body — and then imagine her reading the ingredients. Yogurt is a very simple food. It’s milk inoculated with a bacterial culture. But Go-Gurt has dozens of ingredients.

While researching her book, What to Eat, nutritionist Marion Nestle found some 400 different kinds of yogurt in a local store but was hard pressed to find a few plain, unflavored tubs with nothing added to the milk product beyond the bacteria cultures it requires. “Plain yogurt can be a nutritious and satisfying snack or accompaniment to meals,” Nestle notes in her tome on healthy consumption. “But it is easier to sell — and is more profitable — when it gets turned into a product of infinite variety and cloying sweetness.”

Indeed, the market for commercial, mass-produced yogurt is growing by leaps and bounds. For example, in each of the last three years, sales of Greek yogurt have grown more than 100 percent, according to a recent Los Angeles Times story, which notes that producers of this style of yogurt alone now rake in more than $1 billion in revenue a year in the U.S. Leading supermarket brands for conventional yogurt include Yoplait and Dannon; Chobani and Fage are the biggest sellers of Greek yogurt.

Dairy producers, who want to see as much of their product as possible in the market, are keen on what’s known in the business as “line extension,” writes Nestle. That can mean fruit-flavored yogurts that have no real fruit in them and others that stretch the milk with thickeners to extend shelf life and lower costs.

It’s this industry tampering that leaves a sour taste in the mouths of people like Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit and occasional Grist contributor. “Yogurt as a health food is one of the biggest scams by the food industry, right up there with orange juice,” she says, adding that the way it’s marketed to kids is “just as bad as sugary cereals.”

Critics of yogurt as a health food also point out that the claims surrounding probiotics are far from proven, as Tara Parker-Pope notes in a summary of research on this subject for the New York Times, which also recounts recent class-action lawsuits against manufacturers for misleading health claims surrounding yogurt.

The alternatives

Of course, some commercial yogurt makers are working on alternatives to the mass-produced norm. Stonyfield Farm, while now a division of the French conglomerate Groupe Danone, brought organic yogurt to the mainstream. And a former Kraft branding consultant of Greek background recently rolled out a product called Better Whey of Life Greek Yogurt, made with whey protein from grass-fed cows.

Meanwhile, some small, artisan yogurt producers are succeeding by creating a product much like you might make at home. Take Benoit de Korsak, an artisan who sells French-style yogurt under the Saint Benoit Creamery label in farmers markets, co-ops, and health food stores in California. De Korsak has been producing his own yogurt since 2004 and has also seen a steady increase in sales, even if that still only amounts to about 10,000 quarts and cups of yogurt a week.

De Korsak is both passionate about his product and frank about the challenges of working at a small scale. For starters, industry giants try to lock dairy farmers into exclusive contracts to shut out small-scale producers, a practice he’s dealt with firsthand. He’s also been approached by large yogurt companies eager to buy his business. Though flattered, de Korsak is determined to stay independent and protect the integrity of his product.

There are other challenges to making yogurt locally — maintaining consistency and appearance, sourcing sufficient fruit, fridge life, dealing with recyclable returns — but the hard work is worth it, says de Korsak. “I’m fortunate to live in an area where there’s a local source for organic dairy and fruit, and a community and consumers who understand the true cost of food and are willing to support what I do.”

Not that everyone can afford locally produced artisan yogurt. Which is why making it at home might catch on.

Yogurt is essentially just milk fermented (or soured) with bacteria or culture that converts the sugar lactose in milk into lactic acid, which results in yogurt’s signature creamy texture and tangy taste. The bacteria most frequently used in yogurt sold in the States include Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Bifidus species.

Vanessa Barrington, author of D.I.Y. Delicious, prefers to make a batch in a quart-sized mason jar kept in a warm water bath in the oven overnight. She also recommends starting with non-homogenized, whole organic milk from a local dairy for best results. “Making yogurt is easy,” she says. “And since organic milk is less expensive than organic yogurt, you can save money too.”

Find Barrington’s yogurt recipe here.

This post originally appeared on Grist where it generated more than 50 comments, many on the art of perfecting homemade yogurt.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

MyKidsEatSquid April 20, 2012 at 1:17 pm

I’ve been meaning to try making my own yogurt–and cheese too. Stonyfield is my favorite brand to buy–it’s not as sugary as others. But right now I’m hooked on Greek yogurt. My understanding is that’s pretty easy to make at home too.

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Sarah Henry April 20, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Let me know how your D.I.Y. efforts pan out, MKES.

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Brette Sember April 20, 2012 at 1:19 pm

I’ve never tried to make my own, but my mom used to make yogurt in the 70s or 80s. I remember it sitting in the oven overnight.

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Sarah Henry April 20, 2012 at 4:54 pm

That seems like a popular approach, Brette, another one of those everything old is new again things.

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merr April 20, 2012 at 3:05 pm

I don’t think I’d want to make my own, but that doesn’t mean I might not like the homemade variety!

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Sarah Henry April 20, 2012 at 4:55 pm

I hear you, merr. Sometimes I think if I made everything from scratch that one feels like one is supposed to there would be no time to earn a living.

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Alexandra April 20, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Making your own is SO easy. Really, it’s a snatch. I used to do it all the time. I used buffalo yogurt as a starter. I’d buy one and use it spoonful by spoonful to start yogurt using organic WHOLE milk. Then the store stopped carrying the buffalo yogurt. It really makes a firmer end product. Now I buy large containers of plain organic. I hate the way many American yogurts are super sweet. That’s not how they should be, and it ain’t healthy. I think you have inspired me to start making my own again. Any suggestions on where to find buffalo yogurt or something that works as well to make the homemade firm?
Alexandra´s last [type] ..WCT Celebrates Earth Day

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Sarah Henry April 20, 2012 at 5:49 pm

I have to admit that I’m not familiar with buffalo yogurt and a quick Google search came up relatively empty. Anyone?

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. April 23, 2012 at 7:33 am

Buffalo milk yogurt is really hard for me to find around here too. I’ve just started using Fage as my yogurt starter or holding on to a spoonful of my last batch. It’s not quite as firm, but it’s still tart and loads better than the supermarket version.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..The Bar Cart: Negronis and Boulevardiers

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Sarah Henry April 24, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Thanks for these tips, Casey.

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Sheryl April 20, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Like some others, I think I’d rather buy than make yogurt. Call me lazy…but I’m happy with my Greek yogurt with fresh fruit added. But I do remember my dad making his own yogurt back in the day.

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Sarah Henry April 24, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Do you remember if you liked how it tasted, Sheryl?

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Living Large April 21, 2012 at 8:31 am

Not only is the mass produced yogurt really not very good for people, those little plastic containers are not healthy for the environment either.

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Sarah Henry April 24, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Good point, LL. I cringe when I see how much plastic I collect from yogurt containers, even when I recycle them and fill them with leftovers.

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Alisa Bowman April 21, 2012 at 11:37 am

I’ve been wanting to make my own yogurt. It’s one of my goals for the year. I’m going to get this real food book. Loved this piece!
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..How to Ensure You Do All the Housework Yourself

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Sarah Henry April 24, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Look forward to hearing how it goes, Alisa.

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ruth pennebaker April 22, 2012 at 10:56 am

Count me in as an admirer of those who make their own — but as someone who will probably never get around to making it herself.
ruth pennebaker´s last [type] ..The Strange, Brief Comfort of Wings

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Sarah Henry April 24, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Love your honesty, Ruth, you’re not alone.

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Jane Boursaw April 22, 2012 at 6:51 pm

We used to have a yogurt maker back in our hippie days. Now I want to make yogurt! Do love yogurt.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Rock of Ages International Poster: It’s All About the Tom Cruise Six-Pack

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Sarah Henry April 24, 2012 at 2:56 pm

What is a yogurt maker comprised of, Jane?

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