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You Say Yogurt, I Say Yoghurt, They Say Yaourt

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However you want to spell or pronounce it, this beneficially altered version of milk could save your life, or at least prolong it! There's a wealth of nutritional goodness to be had here, but the real treasure trove is the unique presence of live bacteria, which exert the most amazing influence over your digestive tract and thereby your entire well-being.

Yoghurt has probably been around almost since the first herders decided that stealing a cow's milk was a clever notion. The thickened product of dairy and bacteria combined has been an essential part of various cultures' culinary vocabularies for millennia, in a plethora of forms -- drinks, desserts, marinades and more.

The two major nutritional contributors are calcium and an array of B-vitamins. The B-vitamins provide their usual benefits, but it's the calcium that stands out. Numerous studies have indicated that calcium-rich dairy foods can make a significant contribution to lowered body fat; and yogurt in particular has been shown to increase fat oxidation after meals, thereby increasing fat loss. And of course, calcium is essential for bone health, increasing bone mineral density in the young and warding off osteoporosis in the older folks.

But it's those "friendly bacteria" in yoghurt that are more than just friends, they're saviors. It seems that almost daily, researchers are finding new benefits to be had from these incredibly active components. Overall, they seem to jack up the immune system to an extraordinary degree -- hence the findings that yoghurt with live cultures may indeed be as close as we will get to the legendary Fountain of Youth. Probiotic yoghurt (live-cultured) has been proven to stimulate cellular immunity to a measurably high degree, thereby furnishing protection against infections such as viruses and yeasts, and preventing cancer growth, especially colorectal cancer. Other studies have demonstrated yoghurt's ability to protect against ulcers, reduce and prevent inflammation such as that found in bowel disorders and arthritis, and even fight cavities and gingivitis.

The benefits go on and on. Just finished a course of antibiotics? Be sure to get some yoghurt -- it will replace and balance the bacteria in your intestinal system. Diarrhea keeping you tied to the toilet? Get yoghurt -- it has been used for centuries to relieve that particular malady. Lactose intolerant? Get your protein and calcium safely here -- the probiotics produce lactase which breaks down the nasty lactose that makes you so uncomfortable, before it can reach your intestines.

In providing all these benefits and more, these probiotic bacteria truly live up to the Latin roots of their name -- "for life". So young or old or anywhere in between, make yoghurt an integral part of your daily diet, and you too can embody the Trekkian mandate: "Live Long and Prosper!"

All Yoghurts Are Not Created Equal

Twenty years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find more than one or two options for yoghurt in your market. Now, a dizzying array of choices will overwhelm you in your local dairy case. So let me offer a few suggestions to clear away the clutter and steer you to the most beneficial choices.

It all boils down to -- read the label.

Ingredients. Ideally, you want nothing in there but milk and live cultures. The more "other things" there are, the fewer benefits. Fruit, sugar, pectin, corn syrup, artificial sweeteners -- these all crowd out the active cultures and add empty calories. It's best to make your own additions if you need to -- a drizzle of honey or a few drops of vanilla extract or a bit of chopped fresh fruit. My personal favorite is a teaspoon of Hungarian acacia honey and a handful of blueberries from the farmers market!

Live Cultures. Make sure the "LAC" (Live and Active Cultures) seal appears on the label, and that the product is not "heat treated" -- that process destroys most of the beneficial bacteria. And the more different bacterial cultures listed on the label, the better.

Fat Content. This is a matter of dietary needs and choice. Whole, low-fat, non-fat - choose according to your own personal needs. My personal favorite is Chobani all-natural non-fat Greek yoghurt; it's gratifyingly thick, not too tangy, and has tons of protein.

And of course, be sure to check the expiration date.

Now, on to the kitchen!

Minted Yoghurt & Roasted Eggplant Roll-ups
2 large eggplants, cut into 1/4 inch slices
1/3 cup olive oil
6 medium Persian cucumbers, diced
1 medium sweet onion, diced
24 ounces plain yoghurt
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, shredded
1 tablespoon microplaned lemon zest
1 teaspoon crushed pink peppercorns
2 large sheets lavash bread

Drain yoghurt in a cheesecloth-lined sieve over a bowl in the fridge for 2 hours. Discard liquid.

Preheat oven to 375. Drizzle eggplant slices with olive oil, place in single layer on baking sheet(s). Roast in oven until cooked through but not mushy, turning once, about 10-12 minutes.

Combine drained yoghurt with mint leaves, lemon zest & peppercorns.

Assembly: Lay out lavash sheets. Arrange eggplants slices in a single layer, leaving 2 inches clear at the top. Spread yoghurt mixture over them. Sprinkle diced cucumbers and onion evenly over all. Starting with the edge nearest you, carefully roll up each lavash; secure with a few toothpicks if necessary. Cut in half and serve.

Serves four.

Tropical Yoghurt Fool w/ Coconut & Ginger

32 ounces plain Greek-style yoghurt
2 tablespoons light honey (I love Hungarian acacia honey for this)
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup chopped fresh mango
1 cup chopped fresh strawberry papaya
1/4 cup toasted grated coconut
1 tablespoon minced candied ginger

Whisk together yoghurt, honey & both extracts. Fold in chopped mango and papaya. Divide among four dessert bowls. Combine coconut & ginger and sprinkle over the tops. Cover and refrigerate for an hour.

Serves four.

[A version of this post appears in my "Eat Smart" column in the January issue of Better Nutrition Magazine.]

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