Sam and I are out of town for a few days, staying in a hotel and eating the complimentary hotel breakfast. I love yogurt and eat it almost every day, so yesterday morning I grabbed a container of ACTIVIA peach yogurt from the hotel buffet and ate it on top of melon chunks. As I ate the yogurt, I studied the container. My curiosity was piqued by the claim on the front of the package: “Helps Regulate Your Digestive System.” I remembered Rule #8 from Michael Pollan’s latest book, Food Rules : “Avoid Food Products That Make Health Claims.” Is this one of those health claims I should be wary of? I wondered. Time to do some sleuthing and figure out if ACTIVIA yogurt is all it’s cracked up to be.
Know Your Labels
I started by looking at the back label:
ACTIVIA Peach Yogurt (4 oz.)
- Calories: 120
- Total Fat: 2g (Sat Fat: 1g)
- Sugars: 19g
- Protein: 3g
Red Flag #1: HIGH SUGAR CONTENT
A measly 4 oz. (½ cup) serving of this “healthy” yogurt contains 19 g (nearly 5 teaspoons) of sugar. Yikes! A quick look at the ingredients verifies the sugar content.
INGREDIENTS: Cultured Grade A Reduced Fat Milk, Sugar, Peaches, Fructose, Water, Modified Food Starch, Contains less than 1% of Milk Protein Concentrate, Modified Corn Starch, Natural Flavor, Kosher Gelatin, Annatto Extract and Black Carrot Juice Concentrate (For Color), Agar Agar [?], Lactic Acid, Carrageenan, Sodium Citrate, Xanthan Gum, Vitamin D2.
Not only are there two sources of sugar, but sugars are the second and fourth of the 18 ingredients. This sounds more like a dessert than a healthful breakfast component.
Red Flag #2: INCONSISTENT NUTRTITION FACTS
I couldn’t quite decipher the “Agar Agar” ingredient on my container because that part of the yogurt label was scrunched, so I looked up the peach yogurt nutrition facts on the ACTIVIA website. Interestingly enough, the nutrition facts and ingredients online were different than what appeared on my label.
Online nutrition facts for Activia Peach Yogurt (4 oz.):
- Calories: 110
- Total Fat: 2 g (Sat Fat: 1g)
- Sugars: 17g
- Protein: 5g
INGREDIENTS: Cultured Grade A Reduced Fat Milk, Peach Puree, Fructose, Sugar, Water, Contains less than 1% of Whey Protein Concentrate, Corn Starch, Modified Corn Starch, Kosher Gelatin, Natural Flavor, Annatto Extract and Black Carrot Juice Concentrate (For Color), Sodium Citrate, Malic Acid.
The online nutrition facts portray a slightly healthier yogurt (fewer calories, less sugar, more protein, fewer ingredients). Is ACTIVIA trying to make their product look healthier online? Or was this an honest mistake, perhaps an accidental posting of the nutrition facts of an older/newer yogurt formula? I don’t know the story behind the ACTIVIA nutrition facts, but there is one thing I do know: what I want in my yogurt.
Know Your Yogurt
NOT TOO MUCH SUGAR
In its most basic form, yogurt contains only two ingredients: milk and Live and Active Cultures. With the alarming rise of diabetes and obesity, you’re better off buying (or making) plain yogurt and sweetening it yourself with fresh fruit or a teaspoon of honey or jam instead of indulging in unnecessary sugar.
LIVE AND ACTIVE CULTURES
In addition to calcium and protein, one of the major health draws of yogurt is the Live and Active Cultures they contain. These good bacteria or probiotics help regulate the natural bacteria that line the digestive tract. Thus arises the premise of ACTIVIA’s health claim: their yogurt will help you stay regular.
The ACTIVIA peach yogurt contains three cultures: L. Bulgaricus, S. Thermophilus and Bifidobacterium Lactis DN 173-010. This is a good start, considering some yogurts contain no Live and Active cultures because they are heat-treated to prolong shelf life. Still, there are lower-sugar, more concentrated options for consuming Live and Active Cultures: the 365 Everyday Value Plain Yogurt at Whole Foods contains 6 Live and Active Cultures. And if you’re really gung-ho about Live and Active Cultures, try Kefir, a cultured yogurt drink with European roots. Lifeway Kefir contains 10 Live and Active Cultures.
It’s likely that Live and Active Cultures do have a positive effect on health (see here), but do you really need to consume Live and Active Cultures to stay regular?
Know Your Body
A better (and more immediate) solution for someone suffering from “slow intestinal transit” (as ACTIVIA calls it) is to eat more fiber: legumes, fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Considering a recent CDC study found that fewer than 1/3 of U.S. adults eat 2 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables each day, it’s no wonder people are suffering from “slow intestinal transit.” And if people are missing out on fiber from fruits and vegetables, they may be missing out on other nutrients as well.
Furthermore, ACTIVIA’s scientific proof that their yogurt helps “slow intestinal transit” is hard to come by: I couldn’t find any scientific proof on their website, and a Slate article also calls into question the existence of ACTIVIA’s scientific proof.
So is ACTIVIA all it’s cracked up to be? I don’t think so. If you want to eat yogurt, go for plain yogurt and sweeten it yourself. If you want to incorporate Live and Active Cultures into your diet, find a yogurt with a higher concentration of these probiotics. If you’re concerned about “slow intestinal transit,” eat more fiber. By knowing what your body needs to function well—in this case, ample fiber and not too much sugar—you can tailor your diet to include whole, unprocessed foods that will leave you feeling energized and strong.