The hidden health dangers of flavored yogurt

Deceptively sweet
Deceptively sweet
Image: REUTERS/Pierre Albouy
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Yogurt is not supposed to be sweet. When it’s natural, it has a tasty sour tang, because yogurt is the result of bacterial fermentation of milk.

That’s how people ate yogurt for thousands of years—from its birth in the Anatolian peninsula (now Turkey) between 3000 and 2000 BC, all the way up to the 20th century, when the large-scale industrialization of yogurt made the product a grocery-store staple. In the decades between 1919 and the 60s, yogurt began its journey to sweetness. Yogurt with added fruit jam was patented in 1933, while blended yogurt came about in 1963.

For many Americans, yogurt still wasn’t very appealing. And so, in the 1970s, Danone and other major yogurt companies started massive, long-term advertising campaigns to convince parents of the health benefits of yogurt for kids. To convince kids that yogurts were worth eating, they also had to keep adding more and more sweeteners to cover up the tangy, sour taste of fermented milk.

“Yogurt marketers figured out that most people don’t like plain yogurt—it’s too tart,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and the author of What to Eat. “They could sell more if they sweetened it.”

The gambit worked: Today, yogurt is an $8.5 billion market in the US, and supermarket shelves are stocked with all kinds of yogurt peddled to children—from Dannon’s Danimals to Stonyfield’s YoKids, Yoplait Trix and Chobani Champions. A 2015 study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that flavored yogurt was among the three food and beverage products most commonly marketed to parents on US cable networks.

But what parents may not realize is that one seemingly innocent carton of yogurt can contain about as much sugar, at around 10 grams, as that contained in a Pillsbury cinnamon bun.

A recent study, published in the International Journal of Obesity and highlighted by Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times, suggests that many parents are unaware of just how much sugar their children eat. This has potentially devastating consequences for growing kids. Part of the reason it’s hard for parents to keep track of how much sugar their kids eat is that the ingredient can be found in all kinds of foods and beverages marketed with a “health halo,” like orange juice and—yup—fruit yogurt.

Today’s kids are eating way more sugar than they should

According to the World Health Organization, sugars should make up less than 10% of all calories consumed daily. For kids between the ages of two to 18, that means they should consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day.

But food companies find a lot of ways to sneak added sugar in, as the International Journal of Obesity study highlights. The study, conducted by three researchers affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, surveyed 305 German families with at least one child between the ages of six and 12. During home visits, kids’ body mass index (BMI) was measured, and their parents were given a computer-based test that asked them to estimate the number of sugar cubes contained in six foods and beverages, including fruit yogurt and ketchup. The researchers found that 74% of parents overall underestimated the sugar content across all six food and beverage items.

As Reynolds explains in the New York Times, parents were most confused about the sugar contained in foods that are typically seen as healthful. “More than 90% of the study participants underestimated the sugar in yogurt, for instance, by an average of seven cubes, or about 60% of the total sugar in each serving,” she writes. Some yogurts can contain over four sugar cubes, meaning that just one yogurt can put kids worryingly close to their maximum daily sugar allowance. Indeed, research suggests that a lot of kids are eating more sugar than they’re supposed to, with American toddlers consuming the same as—or more than—the maximum amount recommended for adults.

Why is sugar especially bad for kids?

More than 18% of elementary-school-age students in the United States are obese. The factors contributing to obesity–like lifestyle or stress–are varied, but excessive sugar intake is widely accepted as one of the culprits. Meanwhile, excessive sugar intake during adolescence has been associated with weight gain and cardiac risks, which include an increased risk of obesity and elevated blood pressure. Recent studies have also shown that excess sugar depresses the body’s immunity, making kids more vulnerable to diseases and infections.

The earlier sugar intake begins, the harder the habit becomes to kick later in life. A promising strategy for reducing kids’ sugar intake is to get them used to healthy eating before they turn two. AHA’s guidelines state that kids of this age “should avoid consuming any added sugar, since they need nutrient-rich diets and are developing taste preferences.”

To that end, health advocates are making a push to raise awareness about the pitfalls of flavored yogurt. The “Save Kids From Sugar” campaign, run by the Liverpool City Council in England, is aimed at educating parents about the amount of sugar contained in yogurts. The campaign produced an educational video about the health risks of mistaking flavored yogurt for a healthy snack. Meanwhile, major health organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have issued warnings for parents to avoid falling into the trap of marketing campaigns that push flavored yogurts as healthy alternatives to snacking.  

The good news for parents looking for a quick, easy option is that yogurt doesn’t need to be off the table. Plain yogurt contains only natural sugar. Mixed with fruit or nuts, it makes for a healthy—and appealing—snack.