Greek yogurt is flying off store shelves as more consumers opt for healthier food choices. But what’s all the fuss about?
In September 2009, a plaintive inquiry appeared on an ottawafoodies.com forum: “Anyone know where I can get some Greek Yogurt in Ottawa?” Responses included instructions on how to make your own, a vague suggestion about buying it in bulk at an unnamed cheese store in the ByWard Market and a recommendation to try Loblaws.
An inquiry like that would be unlikely today. Greek yogurt, frequently trumpeted as the latest superfood, is ubiquitous. Manufacturers jockey for market share; Loblaws last year began re-merchandising the dairy section of some stores in part to showcase its Greek yogurts, and publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic, have analyzed the phenomenon of soaring sales: from $60 million annually to $1.5 billion in just five years in the United States.
Not bad for something basically made by straining ordinary yogurt to remove the whey, resulting in a thicker, creamier and often tangy product loudly touted to contain twice the protein level of garden-variety yogurt.
“Like most things that are good for you, my mom told me about it,” says yogurt fan Jason Sooch. “I buy it when I want something to put a wallop in my stomach.”
Insisting that he’s “no connoisseur,” Sooch says he’s partial to Liberte’s zero-fat Greek yogurt. But he admits opting for no-fat depends on his mood. “If I’m feeling plump, I go for zero; if not, I won’t bother looking for it.”
Sooch does his yogurt shopping at Ottawa’s Herb & Spice Shop, where store manager Roxanne Donnelly says Greek yogurt is “flying off the shelf. It’s unbelievable. We’ve definitely given a lot more shelf space to it.”
While overall sales figures in Canada aren’t available, dietitians, like Helene Charlebois, owner of Ottawa’s HC Nutrition Consulting & Wellness, have no doubt about the nutritional value of Greek yogurt. Add a bit of bran or other fibre to it, include either a fruit or vegetable on your plate, and you have a balanced breakfast, she says.
Greek yogurt is also less sugary than regular yogurt because straining off the whey removes lactose, a form of sugar in dairy products.
She says all yogurt delivers a good slug of probiotics — microorganisms reputed to aid digestion and boost the immune system — and is rich in calcium, important for building bones and teeth but lacking in the diets of many North Americans.
John Skotidakis, president of Skotidakis Goat Farm in St-Eugene, Ont., which produces Skotidakis Greek yogurt, tzatziki and other products, says that Greek yogurt has been directly responsible for a 15-per cent jump in the farm’s revenue in the past year alone.
He says high-fat Greek yogurt has been used in restaurant sauces and other recipes for years. Skotidakis tried introducing Greek yogurt to the retail market several years ago, but consumers weren’t ready. The big push came early in 2011 and, thanks to our growing health awareness and willingness to spend more for higher-end food, he’s now reaping the benefits, offering a variety of popular Greek-style yogurts, ranging from zero to nine per cent fat.
Montreal’s Liberte Brand Products, calling its Greek yogurt a “source of pride for our artisans” as though the stuff was lovingly handmade in an Old-World kitchen, unveils its competitive streak by including a chart on its website showing its zero-fat Greek yogurt has the lowest number of calories (100) per serving of several varieties.
The dairy food giant Danone Canada, meanwhile, introduced its Oikos line of Greek yogurt this past September. Like other producers, it offers plain and flavoured varieties. A press release announcing the September launch said competitors use thickening agents to produce their Greek yogurt whereas Oikos results from “a careful straining method inspired by Greek tradition.”
Ironically, a story on Greek yogurt in the New Republic last August suggests that the product sweeping the North American market is closer to what’s produced in Eastern Europe and the Balkans than the traditional high-fat yogurt of Greece. However, thanks to the popular concept of a healthy, low-fat Mediterranean diet, also questioned in the New Republic story, “Greek” sells.
There are many other takes on the Greek yogurt craze. Mother Jones magazine, for example, worries about the environmental impact of a product that requires up to three times as much milk compared to regular yogurt: dairy farms, it says, are significant producers of greenhouse gases. Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic, wonders if the craze is fuelled by both a desire to appear cosmopolitan (Greek connotes foreign which connotes classy) and the simple fact Greek yogurt fills your stomach for very little money compared to some other breakfast or snack foods.
No matter how you spoon it, though, it looks like Greek yogurt is here to stay.