By Emily and Michael
Do your kids like fruit-flavored yogurt? If so, check out this recipe that makes for an easy upgrade from the sweetened options you find at the store. We will also share some other ideas for helping your kids to transition from pre-sweetened to natural yogurt.
You might be wondering why you should bother. Many parents don’t mind buying sweetened yogurt, because with all of the claims on the packaging about calcium, vitamins, and minerals, these products come across as decently healthy. The truth is that they usually contain more sugar and less actual yogurt than you might think. In fact, yogurt products are one of the sneakiest sources of added sugar on the market.
Besides the misleading claims on the packaging, here’s what is tricky: it’s nearly impossible to tell exactly how much sugar has been added to yogurt products because the current nutrition labels only require companies to list the total sugar content and not the amount of added sugar. In the case of sweetened yogurt products, there are some naturally occurring sugars from the milk, but you don’t know how much milk/actual yogurt the product contains. Most products for kids contain regular sugar, while some include healthy sounding sugars like fructose or fruit juice concentrate, which are still just sugar. Also, more and more products sneak in alternative sweeteners like acesulfame potassium (Ace-K) and sucralose.
To get a better idea of what is actually in these products, we conducted a study where we sent samples of beverages and foods, including yogurts, away to an independent laboratory to have them analyzed. We expected to find a lot of sugar, but we found even more than we imagined.
Let’s look at one example of a popular flavor that we tested: Yoplait Trix Strawberry Banana Bash. The online nutrition facts from Yoplait show that each single serving container has 100 calories and 13g of sugar. The sweetener listed is “sugar” and the flavoring is called “natural flavor.” No real fruit is listed. The lab results from this product came back with 15.4 grams of total sugar instead of 13g.* Furthermore, only 3.4 grams of this sugar was naturally occurring lactose from milk, whereas 11.2 grams was sucrose, or table sugar. (The remaining 0.8 grams came from trace amounts of fructose, glucose, and galactose). To put these numbers into perspective, 11.2 grams of sugar is 2.8 teaspoons, or nearly half of the recommended daily maximum suggested for kids for added sugar in a whole day.
It’s not just this brand and type of yogurt that is high in sugar. We tested 20 sweetened yogurt products and found that on average, 52% of their calories came from sugar. And some of these products contained non-caloric sweeteners in addition to regular sugars. For example, Yoplait Light contains regular sugar as well as Ace-K and sucralose. These sweeteners are intense: Ace-K is 200 times sweeter than sugar and sucralose 600 times sweeter. If you give your kids artificial sweeteners, they may develop an even greater preference for sweet tastes. Also, because some sweeteners have a bad aftertaste, you may also turn your kids off to whatever type of product they are in (like yogurt). Most importantly, research shows that artificial sweeteners can contribute to obesity and other health issues. If you are like us and would rather not take the risk with artificial sweeteners, be careful of products that say “light” or “no added sugar.” You may also want to check for fruit juice concentrate that can be used as a sweetener, because it is high in fructose. Fructose is hard on your liver and can be especially damaging to growing children when consumed in excess.
So what’s the best solution? The easiest way around the hidden sugar and sweeteners is to buy plain, natural yogurt and get more creative about how you serve it. This might sound daunting if your kids are used to the highly-sweetened varieties. If your kids don’t like natural yogurt yet, don’t worry. Here are some ideas for how to make the transition.
Tips for Introducing Kids to Natural Yogurt:
- Make Your Own Flavors: Puree or mash your child’s favorite fresh fruit and use it for a topping for natural yogurt. See our recipe below for “Fruit on the Top” Yogurt Pots. Or you can layer the yogurt with sliced fruit to make a parfait, or blend the fruit into the yogurt for a uniform flavor and texture. You can also add in any other natural ingredients and flavors that your child likes, such as nut butter, cocoa powder, vanilla, cinnamon, or nutmeg.
- Go Gradual: If none of the above tips work initially, you can try mixing plain yogurt into your child’s favorite sweetened variety and make a gradual transition.
- Sweeten Sparingly: Along the same lines, you can add a small spoonful of honey or maple syrup to plain yogurt, which is preferable to buying a pre-sweetened variety because you can see and control the amount of added sugar and then gradually reduce it over time or eliminate it.
- Freeze It: Make yogurt popsicles by adding yogurt into our Magic Fruit Pops recipe. Just put plain yogurt and your child’s favorite fruit(s) into a blender or food processor, blend until smooth, and freeze in popsicle moulds.
- Enhance Smoothies: Add natural yogurt to smoothies along with your child’s favorite fruit, a milk of choice, and any other natural ingredients or flavors.
- Pair with Cereal: Serve plain yogurt with muesli (no sugar added) or any low-sugar cereal that your child likes for breakfast or a snack.
- Try a Dip: Natural yogurt by itself makes a great dip for fresh fruit, and when eaten in a smaller quantity like this, it doesn’t come across as quite as tart. Another approach is to make a savory yogurt dip so your child puts it in another category altogether and is less likely to miss the sugar. Simply take a cup of plain yogurt, add a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon or lime, a pinch of salt, and two generous handfuls of fresh chopped herbs, like cilantro, chives, dill, and/or mint.
- Add It to Other Recipes: Yogurt often works nicely in place of sour cream or mayonnaise. You can use it in tuna salad, on baked potatoes, as a topping for soup or chili, or in desserts. It’s nice to have natural yogurt alongside spicy dishes like Indian curries, especially for kids, because it helps to cool down the mouth.
The bottom line is this: if you buy plain yogurt instead of presweetened options, you are in control and can dress it up however you like to suit the individual needs of your kids.
*Note that these results give an estimate of sugar content rather than definitive values. Please see the scientific paper here for more information on the study methods and limitations.
“Fruit on the Top” Yogurt Pots
Makes 4 pots
“Fruit on the bottom” yogurt isn’t always popular with kids, maybe because they can’t see the fruit. And it is usually full of sugar, both in the yogurt and the fruit layer. This simple recipe, which is flipped around, has no added sugar and is easy to customize based on the fruits your child likes. You can play with the ratio of fruit puree to yogurt to help your child get used to the taste of natural yogurt. One of the options we tested was strawberry banana, because this flavor seems to be very popular in store-bought options. The homemade version tastes so much fresher – no artificial banana flavor here. As an added plus, the strawberry helps the banana from turning brown. Keep these yogurts in your fridge for up to 3 days for a quick addition to breakfast, for use in a packed lunch, or for a snack.
These amounts listed are just examples and you can customize the quantities to the size of your jars/containers and your child’s preferences.
–2 cups natural, plain yogurt
–1 cup fresh fruit such as strawberry, blueberry, mango, pineapple, cherry, peach, apricot, or banana. (If you use fruits that turn brown once cut, like banana or peach, consider mixing them with a more acidic fruit or a squeeze of lemon or orange to prevent the puree from turning brown.)
–Puree the fruit in a food processor or blender, pressing down with a spoon it needed to help it blend. Do not add water.
–Spoon the yogurt into small jars or ramekins, adding about ½ cup to each. Then top the yogurt with around ¼ cup of pureed fruit. You can also stir or blend the fruit into the yogurt if your child prefers a more uniform flavor.