In the last few years, "Greek" yogurt has become uber-popular, adored by dieters and foodies alike, for its taste, texture, versatility and nutritional qualities. Sales of this thick yogurt have doubled in the U.S. in the past 5 years and some call it a cultural phenomenon. Governor Cuomo organized a Yogurt Summit in New York, and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded almost $200,000 for a new road in a western New York business park, home to a "Greek" yogurt plant.
I put the word Greek in quotes because as much as I would like to say that "Greek" yogurt is a Greek idea, it's not only Greek. Strained yogurt also known as Greek yogurt is used in many countries particularly in the Middle East and in the Balkans, which also have a very strong yogurt tradition. But outside of those countries, this strained yogurt is considered very Greek. Many "Greek" yogurts have Greek names; for example Voskos, which means shepherd, or Oikos, which means house. We see commercials with YiaYia (Grandma) and John Stamos (Greek-American). Some believe this Greek characterization came about from the Greek dairy company Fage, who was the first to import this type of yogurt and market it as Greek.
But what is this so-called Greek yogurt? It is basically yogurt that has been strained leaving behind the whey. Because of this different preparation method, Greek-style yogurt is lower in carbs than regular yogurts, higher in protein, creamy, rich and basically an indulgence without all the negative consequences. But you might be surprised to learn that Greeks don't consider it any healthier that plain ol' yogurt.
For one thing, Greeks do not think strained (Greek) yogurt is some sort of super food. It really is just an alternative yogurt that is creamier than the traditional kind. Actually strained "Greek"-style yogurt is not even considered yogurt by many. My grandfather, who lived to be 102, would say "if the yogurt doesn't have the whey in it, then it's not yogurt."
In the past, Greeks would mostly eat traditional yogurt made from leftover sheep's milk after making cheese. This non-strained sheep's milk yogurt that was stored in ceramic containers (and still is) with a layer of skin on top, was an important part of the traditional Greek-Mediterranean diet and had multiple health benefits, most likely due to the fact that it came from sheep's milk, not cow's milk. In those days, strained yogurt was available and it was known as the yogurt from the "bag", because the yogurt was hung in fabric bags to be strained. Sometimes farmers would make strained yogurt when they had too much milk left over and they had to find a way to use it, since strained yogurt requires more milk to produce.
Today, things have changed a bit: You'll find several brands of strained yogurt in Greek supermarkets, but Greeks are purists when it comes to their yogurt: You won't find cheesecake and key lime-flavored yogurts -- plain non-flavored yogurt continues to be a best seller.
But the question remains: Are Greeks right? Is regular yogurt healthier than Greek-style yogurt? Well yes, if you live in Greece that is. When I compared the nutritional value of traditional yogurt made from sheep's milk and traditional strained yogurt, I found that in fact traditional sheep's milk yogurt had more protein, less calories, less fat and higher amounts of certain minerals as well as Omega-3 fatty acids than the strained yogurt.
At the end of the day, one thing is for sure: Yogurt is a health food and whether it is plain or Greek-style, it's how you use it and what you add to it that makes all the difference.
Follow Elena Paravantes RD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/greekdiet