Tuesday 18 June 2019

The truth about flavoured yoghurt - which ones should I buy?

Is it a healthy snack - or more of a dessert? Some flavoured yoghurts can be riddled with added sugar. Resident dietitian Orla Walsh takes a closer look at the latest research

Under the spotlight: yoghurt

Yoghurts and their sugar content took the spotlight recently thanks to a Liverpool City Council campaign called 'save kids from sugar'. Although the British city council's website acknowledges yoghurts as a healthy source of calcium and protein that are important for strong bones and teeth, the site also highlighted the added sugar content of some yoghurts.

So how do people know how much sugar is in their favourite yoghurt? Checking the back of a packet for the added sugar content may not be straight forward. The 'of which sugars' on the label includes both the free sugar and the natural sugars. One way to see how much sugar is added to your flavoured product is to compare it to the natural version of the same brand. Any difference in the 'of which sugars' is likely to be sugar added to the pot. Every 4 grams 'of which sugars' is equal to one teaspoon of sugar.

The problem is that the obsession with single nutrients remains unhelpfully high. Sugar is now being demonised, so artificial sugars are being added in instead of the more natural table sugar. Therefore, some flavoured yoghurts have no added sugar but instead contain artificial sweeteners. These sweeteners appear on the ingredients list. Common sweeteners include acesulfame K, sucralose and aspartame.

So what do companies do? Remove all the added sugar from their products or add in some artificial sweeteners?

A study investigated what level of sugar reduction in flavoured yoghurt is accepted by the consumer. For both strawberry and coffee flavours, consumers preferred yoghurt containing 10pc added sugar. However, yoghurt containing 7pc added sugar was also acceptable and 5pc sugar was deemed too low. It would be an idea for food companies to reduce their sugar content little by little over time. Fortunately, some Irish yoghurt companies have already begun this process, with many brands achieving less sugar per pot than their competitors.

Alternatively, buy regular yoghurt instead of low fat yoghurt, as it tends to be less tart. To sweeten and flavour your yoghurt why not use fruit, herbs and spices? For example, apple and mixed spice, peaches and nutmeg, strawberries and vanilla pod, orange and clove, pineapple and cinnamon, kiwi and mint or banana and cocoa, are all tasty combinations.

'Free sugars'

It's important to understand the different types of sugar in our foods. 'Free sugars' are sugars that have been added to food or drinks, as well as those found naturally in honey, syrups, fruit and vegetable juices. Nutritional guidelines suggest reducing our consumption of these types of sugars, as they have been shown to be detrimental to our teeth and general health.

The recommendations do not apply to the sugars that are found naturally within the whole foods such as yoghurt, whole fruits and whole vegetables. These sugars are protected within the cell walls of the plant and or delivered to our body alongside fibre or protein, reducing the speed at which they are digested. That is why there is no limit placed upon this type of sugar.

Although there is naturally-occurring sugar within a pot of yoghurt, when a yoghurt is flavoured or sweetened, the food producer will often have added sugar to its product. The amount of sugar directly added to certain yoghurts can be startling. It would be commonplace for flavoured yoghurts to have two teaspoons of sugar added to each pot. There are some yoghurts on the market with five teaspoons of sugar within each pot. Is this a big deal?

Whether or not the sugar content of the yoghurt is relevant depends on who is eating it. Ideally, most people would keep their free sugar intake to less than 5-10pc of their overall calorie consumption each day. For instance, adults eating a 2,000-calorie diet would have no more than 25g to 50g of free sugars a day (six to 12 teaspoons of sugar). Some people would require more calories each day and therefore have a higher 'sugar allowance'. With regards to children, it depends on their age. A child aged seven to 10 should aim for no more than six teaspoons of sugar while a child aged four to six should aim for no more than five teaspoons of sugar. Therefore two teaspoons of free sugar added to a pot of yoghurt provides a bigger chunk of a child's overall sugar allowance than a parent's allowance.

So why is there so much sugar added to our yoghurts? Unfortunately, for a long time there has been a focus on single nutrients rather than particular foods. For example, there was a period of time when the focus was on fat and saturated fat. This resulted in food companies adapting foods to be low fat. In a bid to keep the foods tasty, sugar was added to the product.

Low fat food with added sugar is unfortunately common. A study was conducted to assess the differences between fat free, low fat and regular versions of the same foods, using national databases. This study found that the amount of sugar is higher in the low fat, including the reduced calorie, light and non-fat options, than 'regular' versions. Thereby supporting the general belief that food that is lower in fat tends to contain more sugar.

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