The beneficial breakfast food backed by a hundred years of science

By Charlie Williams
Published July 1, 2020

Key Takeaways

Grab a spoon and dive into a cup of yogurt. Tasty, right? Many might not think beyond the simple flavorful joys of this common food. But, as it turns out, there’s much more to yogurt than meets the taste buds.

You see, any time you indulge in a little yogurt, you’re participating in an ancient gastronomic tradition that can be traced back thousands of years. While this food’s exact origins are unknown, it’s generally believed that yogurt was accidentally invented in Mesopotamia around 5,000 BCE. That means yogurt has been around longer than the Pyramids of Giza and the Roman Empire.

There’s good reason this dairy food has stood the test of time—not only is it tasty, but it’s also been known to bring health benefits for centuries. When Genghis Khan conquered Mongolia in the early 1200s, he attributed much of his success to kumis, a yogurt-like product, which he claimed kept his army strong and healthy. Three hundred years later in the early 1500s, a yogurt prescription successfully treated the severe diarrhea of King Francis I of France.

Yogurt has also stood the test of modern science. For a hundred years, researchers have studied yogurt and discovered time and again that this modern breakfast food brings fantastic health benefits.

What is yogurt?

Yogurt was likely invented by accident thousands of years ago when an ancient herdsman left some sheep’s or goat’s milk in a bladder pouch (yes, an actual animal’s bladder) a little bit too long. Inside these common bladder pouches was a natural enzyme called chymosin that, when mixed with milk, coagulated into a gel-like substance similar to modern yogurt. Over time, ancient people began to notice that this soured milk product kept longer than milk, had a unique flavor, and provided health benefits. Just like that, yogurt began increasing in popularity and spreading throughout ancient cultures.

Modern yogurt is made in a similar, albeit much more hygienic, process. Cow’s milk is heated to about 185 °F, which denatures the milk’s proteins to prevent it from curdling. The milk is then allowed to cool to about 110 °F, at which point bacterial cultures are mixed in. These bacterial cultures (Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus) are probiotics—live microorganisms like bacteria and yeasts that live naturally in the body. (Probiotics remain at the center of many health claims around yogurt, despite a lack of evidence that they improve health—but more on that later). Next, a temperature of about 110 °F is maintained for 4 to 12 hours, during which time fermentation occurs. Finally, the mixture is sealed in cups and transferred to refrigerated storage, where it’s ready for distribution to store shelves.

What are the health benefits of yogurt?

Scientific studies measuring the health benefits of yogurt can be traced back to the early 1900s. In 1908, Russian zoologist Elie Metchnikoff speculated that many common ailments were the result of toxins produced by putrefactive bacteria in the intestinal tract, pointing to long-living Balkan peasants who consumed large amounts of sour milk that contained probiotics as a case study. It doesn’t appear that Metchnikoff properly studied this correlation, but he publicly encouraged the consumption of sour milk, which brought about a wave of new research into the survival of cultures in the intestinal tract in the years that followed.

A 1919 study confirmed the stories about King Francis I from way back in the 1500s—yogurt can, indeed, alleviate diarrhea and shorten colonic transit time. In fact, consumption of yogurt containing Lactobacillus GG decreased the incidence of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, abdominal distress, stomach pain, and flatulence in healthy volunteers when compared with pasteurized yogurt in a 1990 study. What’s more, in 1923, two researchers who studied yogurt recommended that it be used as a routine infant food to treat babies’ gastrointestinal disturbances.

Recent studies support what century-old research tells us: Yogurt has substantial health benefits. It’s stacked with protein, which powers our bodies and plays a key role in the creation and maintenance of our cells. It contains plenty of calcium, which can be used by almost every cell in the body in some way, but is particularly supportive of bone health and can even help prevent osteoporosis. The milk fat found in yogurt can contain as many as 400 different types of fatty acids, which make up the most complex of all natural fats and act as the building blocks of the fat in our bodies and help us store energy.

What are the health risks of yogurt?

No food is perfect, though, and yogurt is no exception. One of the biggest risks of consuming too much yogurt doesn’t come from the yogurt itself, but from the addition of sugar to nearly every non-plain yogurt on the store shelves. Next time you visit the dairy aisle, be sure to check the nutrition facts before purchasing your favorite yogurt. In an evaluation of more than 900 different types of yogurt products, including drinkable and Greek yogurts, researchers found that the vast majority have more than 10 g of sugar per 3.5 oz of yogurt. Some include as much as 27 g per serving—nearly as much as 12 oz can of soda.

The store shelves are also stacked with yogurts that tout the benefits of the probiotics they contain, but according to the latest research, it’s unclear whether probiotics improve digestive health. New treatment guidelines from the American Gastroenterological Association steer physicians away from claiming that probiotics are beneficial to gut health because there’s a lack of clear data to support that hypothesis. On the flipside, it’s also unclear whether probiotics pose a health risk. The bottom line is that more research is needed before conclusions can be drawn.

Yogurt in a nutshell

Even after thousands of years of consumption, there’s plenty left to learn about yogurt. How do the probiotics it contains help or harm our digestive tracts and microbiomes? What additional live cultures could we add to increase the food’s health benefits? How can we increase production capabilities to ensure yogurt maintains its health benefits and remains safe to eat over a long shelf-life?

While future research might soon answer these questions, we can rest easy with the support of a hundred years of science. Yogurt is, and will likely remain, a beneficial breakfast food.










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