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June 6, 2019
A Short Rant About Nonfat Yogurt

It’s flavorless, not filling, and has the approximate taste of the packaging it came in. So why do people still love it?

In 1980, the war on fat began. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released its first set of dietary guidelines, somewhat in response to the growing number of Americans—and, coincidentally, Congress members—dying prematurely from heart disease, and the third recommendation on the list, written in big, bold letters, was “Avoid too much fat.” Certain foods were glorified (chicken breast! beans!), while others were vilified (scrambled eggs! nut mixes!). Around the same time, yogurt was becoming an household staple, thanks to brands like Dannon. In 1982, yogurt sales were growing by 19 percent. And the fat-free version was immediately ubiquitous. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, it was even sometimes difficult to find full-fat yogurt at grocery stores—and it still can be.

But allow me to inform you: Fat-free yogurt is a sham.

I went through my own fat-free yogurt phase. When I was in middle school, I begged my mom to buy me those red, foil-topped Yoplait yogurts that marketed themselves as 99 percent fat-free (what does that even mean?!). I was a self-conscious teen, and I fully bought into the anti-fat rhetoric. Plus, the yogurts came in crazy flavors like Key Lime Pie and Strawberry Cheesecake! And without the fat! But take a look at the ingredient list on the back of those Yoplait yogurts and many a fat-free yogurt variety, and you’ll find all kinds of sweeteners, like sucralose, that enhance the flavor, plus gelatins and starches to build creaminess. Some kinds have even more sugar than a Twinkie.

There are many reasons to buy yogurt with at least a small amount of fat content. The first one is obvious: It just tastes better. I love the way full-fat yogurt coats my tongue like a silk scarf. The fat contributes the rich, buttery flavor—you can actually taste the milk. Nonfat yogurt is drastically different—it doesn’t have a natural taste. If anything, I’ve found it often tastes like whatever material the container is made of. It’s gluey, not as rounded, and not filling.

Want to know who feels even stronger about choosing yogurt with fat? Chefs. Particularly those who work within cuisines in which yogurt plays a central role.

Reem Assil exclusively uses full-fat yogurt in her Oakland Middle Eastern restaurants, Reem’s. “The lower-fat versions take away from the complexity of flavors by watering them down,” she says. Full-fat yogurt “adds better body to dishes, and the fat creates the base of many Arab dishes,” like her intensely rich labneh, or the harissa yogurt dipping sauce that accompanies her batata harra, or crispy potatoes.

Want to know who feels even stronger about choosing yogurt with fat? Chefs. 

At the popular fast-casual Greek restaurants Souvla, in San Francisco, founder Charles Billies says full-fat yogurt is “essential” to the creaminess and complexity of the tangy Greek-inspired ranch dressing in his sandwiches and salads. It’s what makes Souvla’s wildly popular frozen Greek yogurt taste so lush.

“An Italian would never recommend nonfat fresh mozzarella,” he insists. “It would be sacrilege for me to recommend a nonfat yogurt. If you’re going to eat yogurt, treat yourself to the real thing.”

Asha Gomez, the chef and author of My Two Souths, grew up in an exclusively full-fat household—her parents, like many South Asian families, made their own yogurt, and nonfat wasn’t even on the radar. Similarly, my dad has always made our family’s yogurt with 2 percent milk. Skim milk doesn’t set correctly, he says—the yogurt is loose and watery. This is largely because yogurt with fat also has a lower risk of separating when you’re heating it up.

Okay, you might say, I know that full-fat yogurt tastes better. But what about the nutrition angle? I’m no doctor, and I understand that some people have to eat fat-free yogurt for serious medical reasons, but several studies have shown that the types of fat in yogurt are better for your heart, as they raise healthy HDL cholesterol levels, and also for your gut, since full-fat yogurt is lower in lactose. Full-fat yogurt also has certain types of good bacteria that are helpful for digestion. For me, full-fat yogurt actually fills me up for a long time. I snack way less.

As a healthy dessert, full-fat yogurt is as good as it gets. Have you ever tried shrikhand, the cardamom-laced Indian dessert made of spiced, strained, and sweetened yogurt? It’s healthy-ish but tastes luxurious, it’s dreamily thick, and I’d take it over a slice of cake any day.

Here’s the other thing: I’m not saying you always have to buy full-fat yogurt. I love a good 2 percent Fage—it’s thick but not overwhelmingly so. The perfect movie snack! Sometimes you don’t always want that super rich texture.

So are there any instances where fat-free yogurt can have a place in cooking? Billies and Gomez admitted they have successfully used it as a marinade (though, as we learned in a previous column, whole-milk yogurt fried chicken should be the new gold standard). Bilies will use it as a binding agent when he’s making a filling for, say, a cheese pie, since the cheese already has quite a bit of fat.

Sure, eating loads of fatty stuff is not great for you. But I’m not convinced that you should actively choose a less flavorful option when the more enjoyable version is still reasonably healthy. Unless I need an in-a-pinch substitute for spackling paste, you’ll never see fat-free yogurt in my fridge.

RECIPE: Dad’s Yogurt

Priya Krishna

Priya Krishna is a food writer and the author of the college-centric cookbook Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks and Indianish.