Before you start the enjoying the hot weather and cool treats this summer – there’s something I have to tell you, but you first have to promise not to kill the messenger (me!).
Commercially available frozen yogurt is one of the most processed food products on the planet!
Yes – you heard that right – that creamy, low calorie, probiotic promised goodness swirled into your cup and topped with your favorite goodies is one of the worst “healthy” fads to hit the franchise market, and I’m here to tell you the cold hard facts (ha! – no pun intended).
Frozen yogurt is made with several components: (Unlike real yogurt that is made with just two ingredients – milk + cultures)
- milk solids, processed milk product (like powdered or condensed milk) and/or milk fat
- some kind of refined sweetener – usually a few different kinds like evaporated cane syrup, corn syrup, dextrose, etc.
- yogurt culture (Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus are common cultures)
- natural or artificial flavorings
- natural or artificial coloring
- sometimes trans fat
- sometimes preservatives
- stabilizers and thickeners like guar gum or carrageenan
- other fillers like cellulose gum (a.k.a. the stuff made from wood pulp)
Before the mixture is frozen into an edible product, the yogurt ingredients come in a big box of pre-made liquid or powder. This is very similar to how most fast food franchises obtain their products – in a box or a carton pre-made, pre-mixed, heavily processed and preserved. In fact, most frozen yogurt companies buy their formula mix from the same manufacturer and at a very cheap cost, about 10 cents per serving – and sell it to you for a 500% markup! To witness just how processed frozen yogurt can be, I challenge you to go over to your favorite frozen yogurt joint and ask them how they make their yogurt. They’ll show you the pre-packaged liquid or powder they mix with water that they throw right into the machine – pre-packed liquid that looks NOTHING like yogurt and more like kool-aid, depending on the flavor in a plastic jug. It’s a rather disgusting sight to tell you the truth, and an exercise I conduct on occasion to remind myself not to eat that stuff.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular brands of yogurt available and what they contain.
Guar gum is an ingredient that is used in all the brands featured below (Pinkberry, Menchies, Yogurt Mountain, TCBY, Red Mango and Yoforia) that you may have heard of and wondered about. It comes from ground up guar beans, which technically aren’t bad for you, but when highly processed into gum it can contain an extraordinary amount of soluble fiber that can reduce the absorption of important vitamins and minerals in your body 1. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg considering what’s really in these frozen yogurt products…
Pinkberry started its business by selling a yogurt like substance, claiming health benefits of probiotics and live cultures. In 2007, the LA Times sent samples of Pinkberry’s product to get tested, revealing that Pinkberry did not contain enough active cultures to be considered yogurt by California law. It wasn’t until a law suit that Pinkberry eventually came clean about their ingredient list and changed their formula so their products could be called real yogurt.
Today Pinkberry’s ingredients are available online like most retailers. The Cookies and Cream flavor has TBHQ (commonly used in varnishes, lacquers, pesticide products, cosmetics, and perfumes – not something I want to be eating), GMOs (corn flour, soy lecithin, dextrose, maltodextrin) and carrageenan, which can cause stomach inflammation. These ingredients make this product far from healthy. In addition, they do not use organic dairy, which is #1 on my organic shopping priority list because conventional dairy comes from cows on a mostly GMO filled diet, injected with growth hormones and/or antibiotics.
It was shocking to find so many different kinds of sugar (including corn syrup) and artificial food dyes in the “Fancy French Vanilla” at Menchies and “Old Fashioned Vanilla” at Yogurt Mountain. I thought getting the vanilla flavor would be about as plain Jane as you can get, but apparently these yogurt chains feel the need to color their vanilla to make it white. Unfortunately, this is a common technique the food industry uses to disguise inexpensive, chemically processed ingredients as real food. When you see artificial colors or flavoring in a product it is a huge warning sign that what you are eating is not real food.
TCBY – famously known as “The Country’s Best Yogurt” – is actually one of the worst, using the ingredient propylene glycol in almost all of their yogurts. Propylene glycol is a non-deadly antifreeze and solvent no one should be ingesting.
Luckily, Red Mango is realizing the importance of probiotics to their customers and using strains that can survive the freezing process. However, the way they make their yogurt is still very questionable considering that the “Caribbean Coconut” flavor actually contains ZERO coconut. Which is not the least bit surprising when you examine the ingredient list closely and find the words “natural flavors.” These flavors are created in a laboratory and there’s no way to figure out what’s actually in them by just looking at the ingredient list. They can be created by anything “natural” found on earth (in some cases that could be beavers’ anal glands for a “natural” strawberry flavor!). Food scientists create specific flavors to trick your brain into enjoying a processed product more than you should or trick your brain into thinking a product has an ingredient that it actually doesn’t have.
Yoforia uses organic milk (which is FANTASTIC) but then they go and totally screw up a beautiful thing by putting all sorts of other additives in their yogurt, including artificial food dyes, GMOs, and trans fat. This is one of the worst abuses of marketing I’ve ever seen, which motivated me to write several posts about this company and demand changes from their CEO. While they did release their ingredients online after our conversations, they have not changed their product to fit their marketing in their stores.
How To Get Your Frozen Yogurt Fix
Besides all of these chemically made processed ingredients, you have to remember that almost all frozen yogurt has an extraordinary amount of refined added sugar – that’s how they get away with feeding you a non-fat/low-fat product that actually tastes good. Frozen Yogurt was actually invented in the 1970′s as a healthier alternative to ice cream, but food manufacturers found they had to cover up the tart flavor with lots of sugar in order for it to be mass marketed and to taste just as good as ice cream – totally defeating it’s original intent!
With that said, the option least damaging to your health is plain frozen yogurt (tart flavor) with no added flavoring (not the vanilla flavor, because it could likely have additives and/or be artificially colored as noted above). You can add fresh fruit or nuts to it that are commonly found at the topping bar, which are the best real food options. But remember if you decide to go this route, you still have the risk of consuming non-organic dairy and other preservatives. Personally I think choosing the plain tart frozen yogurts is no fun considering they taste pretty boring and too “healthy,” and seeing all the other options can be too tempting for me to even go visit in the first place. Always ask to see the ingredient list before you buy because 9 times out 10 that makes the decision to say no to that craving easier. Please note, recombinant bovine growth hormone (a.k.a. rbGH) found in milk won’t be included on the list of ingredients, so specifically ask about this too, which is outlawed in 27 countries and study after study links it to many forms of cancers.
Personally, I don’t see the need to eat frozen yogurt as a dessert or to get my probiotics (I get them through a daily supplement and lots of fermented vegetables like kimchi). When I want a dessert I go for the real full fat thing and I usually make my own frozen treats to avoid additives. This is my favorite quick and easy recipe for ice cream that un-junks three of my old favorite flavors from Baskin Robbins – Cookies & Cream, Pistachio Almond and Mint Chocolate Chip – and it can be ready in just 25 minutes!
If you know someone who loves frozen yogurt and real food, please share this post with them!