What is Up with Yogurt?

Growing up, I could not drink milk. The smell, and the taste, really made me wretch. Ever seen a group of kids when one throws up, they all do? That would be me that started that chain, and it usually would happen when the free milk was distributed!  I was not quite as weak stomached as Wendell Borton from the Simpsons, but pretty close!

Wendell Borton, the kid no one wanted to be near because everything made him sick

Kids and adults do need their calcium. I loved milk products, but not milk in itself. Put in chocolate syrup in my milk, and poof, I would be able to drink it. Loved the cream of ice cream too!  I recall the first bit of advice my doctor gave me was that I HAD to drink milk straight up.  No chocolate, no fruity cereal mixed, just straight in a glass. In most cases I would try to obediently suck up my discomfort, but every time I was encouraged by my parents or teachers to drink milk straight up, I would just regurgitate the whole thing.  I could not even take the smell of milk! To this day, it promotes a gag reflex.

The only thing that helped my calcium depleted body was cheese, ice cream, and yogurt.

I want to be pretty clear about this, the yogurt with the fruit on the bottom back in the day was not that appealing.  The yogurt on the top was extremely sour. You had to work hard to get at the fruit, and the fruit at the bottom did not resemble anything like fruit.  It tasted more like a chemical afterthought. Getting to the fruit was a non-worthwhile fight, having to drill through the horrible smelling congealed mess on the top.

The choice was also limiting. You had about five flavours – strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, peach, and plain. The  fruit on bottom yogurt “reigned supreme” in stores.  There was a claim that it was healthy, but no one admitted to liking this yogurt. Very few kids had it packed in their lunch boxes. The smell of this was ungodly on its own, never mind combined with peanut butter sandwiches. Any health benefits would be sustained if you were able to keep the stuff down, a very difficult feat for most. But in the late 70s, yogurt got a new twist and became a bit more trendy.

The French sold stirred yogourt for some time. Yoplait had been around for a while, and as the French were always recognized for “haute cuisine” and refined food culture, Americans jumped over the opportunity to market the heck out of this.  Yoplait had a huge advertising campaign hiring various big name celebrities eating their yogurt.  I recalled really being impressed by Tommy Lasorda, the manager for the LA Dodgers at the time, sounding so fluent in French.

One actor, Judd Hirsch from the hit show Taxi, despised yogurt, and Yoplait stirred yogurt at the time was not really very good. It tasted very watery and had a bad aftertaste.  It was a step up from the fruit on bottom types, but it was still a bit of an acquired tasted.  Judd had to do several takes, each time gagging up the yogurt, before finally perfecting the commercial below. You will notice how he takes very little of the yogurt in comparison to Lasorda.

Judd Hirsch

Tommy Lasorda


Loretta Swit from Mash

Thankfully, companies like Dannon and Delisle around the same time started to produce stirred yogurt.  To me, Yoplait was what yogurt tastes like if it was made with water instead of milk.  At least Delisle had a creamy texture that was an upgrade. The sweetness, the fruit, and the creaminess, made the yogurt  much more palatable, and in fact  was addictive. I ate the stuff by the boat loads.

I am not sure exactly when yogurt became a fad, but I am guessing something started to happen in the 90s.  Yogurt really stopped tasting like yogurt and I questioned if it really was yogurt anymore.

Society became crazed about “fat free” foods. Frozen yogurt suddenly started filling the ice cream section as a lower fat option.  Though some brands truly did offer an ice-creamified version of yogurt for the true yogurt die-hards, others crafted the flavour to broaden the market. Ever eat chocolate frozen yogurt? Tastes just like a fudgicle. Vanilla frozen yogurt tasted like a creamer vanilla ice cream. My wifey and I were so totally shocked when we first tried it, that we had to put it to the test on someone who despised yogurt. Just so happened that my mother-in-law, who was raised in the days when yogurt tasted like something spawned by the devil, was a good candidate. She hated yogurt so much that the thought of eating it made her gag. We were so convinced that she would not know the difference, that we served her vanilla frozen yogurt as ice cream.  She ate it, and she could not stop singing its praises. As she ate it, she went on and on about how creamy and tasty this ice cream was, and asking where we got it. Then wifey told her it was yogurt,  she stopped dead in her tracks, as if she was struck by a slege-hammer.  She enjoyed it, but I don’t think she ever bought it for herself (the wounds of 60s yogurts lie deep, after all). In hindsight, that was not a very nice experiment, but it did demonstrate a point.

The 90s introduced Yogen-Fruz to accelerate the frozen yogurt trend.  It gave you the option of choosing combinations of fruit and blending them in an ice-creamy treat.  They difference they offered from stores was the variety of flavours. You can now have melon and pineapple in your yogurt. You can bury it in sprinkles and whipped cream. This was not the yogurt I remember as a youth – but it was good!  Yogurt found a niche – it was all about the cream and sugar, not this hardened congealed thing I grew up with.

Can this truly be yogurt? Is this a healthy alternative to a bag of chips?

A friend, who despised yogurt in the 80s, told me once that yogurt was Latin for “’I’m hungry and there’s nothing else in the fridge”. With the advent of frozen yogurt, not only were we actively buying and snacking on the stuff, but we were starting to see new variations enter the marketplace. The French were no longer trendy in the yogurt world. After all, Yoplait had nothing on Yogen Fruz.  The cream was what was selling the stuff. Liberte, a Canadian company, introduced “Mediterranean” style. They took the queue from frozen yogurt, made a product that was full of fattening yogurt-styled cream, and did some cool combinations of fruit, like peach and passion, and orange and mango. Even traditional fruits, like strawberry, tasted much better in this creamy brand. They also perfected adding coffee to yogurt. It was also easier to stir up this fruit on bottom yogurt. The cream at the top was soft and rich and edible on its own. Since the French stirred yogurts were originally intended for desserts, Liberte introduced dessert yogurts. You could get Apple a la mode, and orange and marzipan flavours.

The 90s also tried to promote this dessert food as healthy. Throw in probiotic cultures, and poof you are doing your body good.  The non-fat variants were lacking in texture, but offered an option for those that preferred non-fat and heavily chemically injected tastes to the natural options. Variety packs of yogurts became the norm, which was a shame if you liked only one flavour. If there was a four pack. You would get three different fruit yogurts and one vanilla. Side note, I often thought adding one vanilla yogurt was a brilliant cost cutting means of selling yogurt. The trendy yogurts were more expensive. The non-fat crap was always cheap.

Then about five years ago, the Greeks were making a dive into yogurt making. Honestly, the only connection I made with Greek food and yogurt was tzatziki sauce (which is awesome). Though tzatziki is yogurt based, it was far removed from the fruit-based yogurt I knew. The Greek yogurts became a rage. To my taste, they are a little less creamier than the Mediterranean version I knew.  I found it interesting that despite the economic chaos that was happening in Greece during that time, which also had ripple effects around the world, the Greeks suddenly perfected the creamy yogurt with 12 grams of protein per pack. Sad truth, the Americans were the marketing brains behind this recipe, and they did not give any kickbacks to Greece for branding rights.  Greek yogurt made up to 50% of yogurt sales in the US in 2014, which translates to over three billion dollars in revenue. The Greeks did not see any of that money…

The supermarkets are now flooded with yogurts. In my local store, an entire aisle is now dedicated to yogurt. I even saw an “Icelandic” yogurt. I have no idea what is special about Icelandic yogurt, maybe they add some fish in it.  You can buy yogurt with various granolas, or seeds, and watch your calorie count go from 100 to 600.

yogurt aisle.
My local grocery store. You have more choice of yogurt than you do of anything else.
Icelandic yogurt
What makes Iceland special in the yogurt world?

And in our current political climate, we have French yogurt, we have Mediterranean and Greek yogurts, and Icelandic versions, when will we get a truly American version?  The US is one of the biggest yogurt producers in the world. They even bought out Yoplait.  Can you imagine what an American yogurt would be like? It probably loves guns, kicks ass, and takes pride in political ignorance (especially in comparison with countries where yogurt originated). One thing I could imagine, if an American-styled yogurt came out, there may be a ban on all imported yogurts from the middle east (unless heavily vetted).  Bye bye Liberte Mediterranean.

My question is, do people really love yogurt so much? If you had a choice between a bag of Doritos or a 125 ml container of yogurt, what would you naturally gravitate towards?

For me, seeing the craze worries me. We eat yogurt, we are using it to treat wounds and sunburns, and we are drinking it!  What is next fad? Yogurt cheese? Yogurt-based toothpaste?  I am all for the evolution of a product, but with so much variety of not just yogurt, but many products, decisions are much more complex than they once were. It is a reflexion of our culture, in a sense.  We have evolved from a binary “it is yogurt” or not, do variants of yogurts. Our time is becoming more and more consumed with thinking of different subtypes. It is ok once you find the subtype you like, but it can take a while.

To close, when I was first married, my wifey asked me to buy some ham. I asked her what type of ham she wanted. After all, there is black forest ham, smoked ham, Parisian ham, baked ham, canned ham, and the list goes on. Her response was, buy me “ham ham”.

I got the point. Yogurt is no different. There really is no such thing as “just yogurt” anymore. Like everything, with so many options, grocery shopping is more time killing exercise as we now have to focus in and silly things like multiple subvariants of products  that in their original state, we would not even like.



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