Steamy summer days draw us in hordes to frozen yogurt shops, beseeching us to clamor at the dispensers for cool, delicious relief. While ice cream shops have been around for well more than 100 years, frozen yogurt shops are a newer phenomenon and have been spreading like wildfire recently, inviting us to serve ourselves but raising questions along the way. Is it real yogurt that's being frozen? Is it another form of ice cream? Is it healthier than ice cream and other frozen desserts? With chains allowing you to serve yourself and choose from sometimes dozens of toppings, it's certainly a fun and interactive dessert that you can personalize, but what's behind all of the flavor and topping madness, and ultimately, which chain is the best? We took a look at 10 national frozen yogurt chains to see what they're made of, and the truth is that not all frozen yogurt is the same (Credit: flickr_pamlau).
The origins of frozen yogurt go back to around 1970, but its evolution was a long time coming. Ice cream was invented after the first hand-cranked freezer was created and patented in 1848, followed soon after by pasteurization methods and machines in the 1900s. Yogurt slowly gained popularity as a health food through the efforts of Daniel Carasso and of the Danone brand in Europe, and finally Dannon began selling packaged yogurt with fruit on the bottom in the United States in 1942. It took until 1970 to apply the same process of making ice cream to yogurt, wherein the wet and dry ingredients are mixed together, pasteurized, homogenized, and yogurt cultures are added. The result was a healthier, similar-in-consistency treat, but the formula wasn't complete just yet: people complained that it tasted too much like yogurt, was too tart, and not enough like the sweet, creamy ice cream they were used to. Jump to 1981 and you have the opening of the first TCBY in Little Rock, Ark., starting a revolution in the healthier dessert industry.
What Exactly is Fro-Yo?
Despite all the fun flavors and bright colors, fro-yo isn't so simple. To put it in the simplest of terms, it's made from combining milk that's been cultured with live and active cultures with sweetener, a thickening agent, and some sort of flavoring. Then it's pasteurized, fermented, and frozen. Tasti D-Lite, one of the original and longest-standing frozen yogurt chains, claims that they typically use water, nonfat milk, sugar, corn syrup, cream, guar gum, locust bean gum, and carrageenan to make their frozen yogurts. TCBY uses milk that's been cultured with live and active cultures like B. lactis, L. acidophilus, and L. bulgaricus, and in Red Mango's ingredient list you'll find nonfat yogurt that's made with skim milk, natural flavor, guar gum, and live and active cultures, filtered water, pure cane sugar, and other natural flavors. Some chains find loopholes around their ingredients, however: the Food and Drug Administration mandates that to be considered a "yogurt," the product has to have the two bacteria, lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophiles, though it does not say that the bacteria need to be present in the final product. Thus, many frozen yogurt places cannot technically qualify as a "yogurt," but still fall into the niche market of frozen yogurt.
The exact recipe varies from place to place, but in general you're going to find much less fat and much more protein than traditional ice cream. However, when fat is eliminated, typically more sugar is added, but if you pay attention to the serving size, frozen yogurt is a healthy alternative as far as desserts go. On average, in about a 4-ounce serving you'll find about 17 grams of sugar, 100 calories, and 2 grams of fat, depending on the company.
It can be extremely overwhelming walking into a frozen yogurt store, from the bright décor at TCBY to the club music at Cups and the iPads at Let's Yo. Even the flavors can be outrageous, like spicy Aztec chocolate, maple bacon donut, and ginger lemonade. You typically want to try it all and end up with a $7 hodge-podge of yogurt and toppings, so hopefully our test can help sort things out for you.
The Daily Meal's Ranking
In order to assemble our ranking, we looked at each of 10 popular fro-yo chains in a few categories to see how they matched up. At each of the chains, we aimed to sample a chocolate, vanilla, fruit, and classic tart/original flavor, but had to make adjustments at a few locations due to availability of flavors. We looked at them in seven categories and ranked them in each from one to five, one being the weakest/worst/not a lot, and five being the highest/best/a lot. Price was also taken into consideration.
10 Chains were tested and each place had a different atmosphere, delivered a different experience, and had different flavors to offer. At many of the chains, there were flavors offered that had (apparently) nuances of difference in taste, like chocolate, Dutch chocolate, dark chocolate, and chocolate malt, or even strawberry, wild strawberry, Sonoma strawberry, and strawberries and cream. All this fiddling with semantics might seem unnecessary, but every yogurt chain is trying to outdo its competition as frozen yogurt becomes more and more popular and seemingly less of just a fad. Hopefully this testing can help provide a baseline of what makes a frozen yogurt shop's offerings delicious, fun, and a relatively healthier alternative to traditional ice cream.
If you're looking to keep frozen yogurt as healthy as possible no matter where you're getting it from, some nutritionists and professionals chime in on the topic. Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., told Glamour that you should add large fruits to make the cup look fuller, and add toppings with volume, like cereal or other things with air in them to take up room. Cynthia Sass, M.P.H, R.D., and author of S.A.S.S! Yourself Skinny, added that you should include a little bit of your favorite topping to satiate your sweet craving, and Alyse Levine, M.S., R.D., at Nutritionbite out of Los Angeles, says not to fill the entire cup, because they're typically sized to hold two to three times the amount you should be having. And if you're just looking for something sweet and don't care all that much about the best flavor and toppings, obviously go for the option that has the least calories, sugar, and fat to get your sweet fix.
- Katie Reinhard, The Daily Meal
Going into Cups is always an experience, with the loud music, bright colors, and television screens showing people dancing like a Dance-Dance-Revolution game. We sampled the birthday cake flavor because they didn’t have vanilla and it was just about perfect, very true to taste, but the Eurotart was almost sour. Original chocolate was really creamy, reminiscent of a Wendy’s Frosty, and strawberry was really milky and thick as well. Their toppings included a wide array of fruits, candy, and chocolate pieces like chocolate covered marshmallows, but the yogurt melted pretty fast after we sat down with it. Cups got the number five spot because it has a variety of flavor and toppings options while keeping the fat at zero and the sugars relatively low, but the flavors could have been refined a little bit, as well as the consistency of the yogurt. If the flavors packed more of a punch and the frozen yogurts withstood melting a bit longer, Cups would have gotten an A+ in our book. A less aggressive environment would help, as well, but their target market seems to be the tweens that don't mind it all that much. In a 83-grams serving, their Birthday Cake is 100 calories, 0 grams fat, and 18 grams sugar; their strawberry is 70 calories, 0 grams fat, and 18 grams sugar; the Eurotart is 90 calories, 0 grams fat, and 13 grams sugars; and their chocolate is 110 calories, 0 grams fat, and 20 grams sugar. Cups’ frozen yogurt undergoes a culturing process that gives it high levels of live and active cultures, but also results in less acidity to make the taste sweeter and less tart. They offer 24 flavors that vary by location, and more than 50 toppings, with yogurt flavors like huckleberry, maple bacon donut, and angel food cake, and topping flavors like watermelon, papaya, and vanilla Clodhoppers, the Dylan’s Candy Bar classic of graham cracker covered in white chocolate fudge. Taste true to flavor: 3 Base of real ingredients, not powder: 5 Consistency/texture: 5 Topping selection: 5 Topping freshness: 3 Health benefits: 4 Unique atmosphere/options: 5 Total: 30/35 Click here to see All Frozen Yogurt Chains Taste-Tested Credit: facebook_CUPSFrozenYogurt
It’s easy to go overboard here because their cups are practically bigger than your face, but it’s just so darn good. Their flavors had a creamy consistency but were slightly untrue to taste. The vanilla was good and creamy but didn’t have a pure vanilla taste, the strawberry was milky but still fruity and delicious, but the chocolate was spot on. Original tart wasn’t on tap so we tried the California tart, and our first instinct was to pucker; it was intensely tart, but very refreshing. They each melted in about 10 minutes but withstood melting longer than many of the others. There were a ton of toppings, from the usual ones like cookie dough and fruits, to cereal, and a huge array of sprinkles and syrups. The combinations that you can concoct, between yogurt flavors and toppings, are endless. Let’s Yo gets number four because even though the flavors could be slightly truer to taste, they are still really delicious, and their toppings blow the competition out of the water. It also has just about the same amount of calories and sugar as other places but technically its serving size a little bit larger. In a 89-grams serving, their vanilla is 100 calories, 0 grams fat, and 16 grams sugar, their all-natural California tart is 100 calories, 0 grams fat, and 17 grams sugar, their chocolate is 80 calories, 0 grams fat, and 6 grams sugar, and their wild strawberry is 80 calories, 0 grams fat, and 6 grams sugar. Founded by Eric Casaburi, the man who launched RetroFitness gyms at the age of 29, Let’s Yo is Casaburi’s idea of a fresh and all-natural way to get a treat even if you’re trying to stay fit, all done in a modern way. He stresses that "Let’s Yo products are rich and robust with taste, low in fat, stacked with live cultures and good for the body." Their frozen yogurt uses fresh milk, dairy, high amounts of live and active cultures, and real fruit. They also offer coffee drinks like cappuccinos, café lattes, and hot cocoa in a café-like environment. Some wackier flavors include snicker doodle cookie dough, blue daiquiri ice sorbet, and ooey gooey cinnamon bun. Taste true to flavor: 3 Base of real ingredients, not powder: 5 Consistency/texture: 5 Topping selection: 5 Topping freshness: 4 Health benefits: 4 Unique atmosphere/options: 5 Total: 31/35 Credit: facebook_LetsYoYogurt
We were really blown away by how thick and creamy their yogurt was; the consistency was almost custard-like, and we really enjoyed it. The strawberry was very good, almost like a thicker strawberry milkshake, and the chocolate had a genuine taste, not too sweet, but actually full of cocoa. The vanilla was kind of bland, and they didn’t have tart on tap so we sampled the German chocolate flavor and it was incredible; you could taste chocolate and coconut both very prominently. The biggest drawback was the selection: there were only six flavors on tap, and all of the general toppings (cookie dough, Oreo crumbles, gummies, sprinkles, syrups) but not as many as other stores. At the end of the day, not enough options plagued this chain, so although the taste was incredible and it’s extremely health-conscious, wasn;t at the top of the heap because it just doesn’t offer enough. More flavors on tap and some more topping options would improve Tasti D-Lite. According to their media fact sheet, in a 4-fluid ounce serving, Tasti D-Lite has only 70 calories, 1.5 grams of fat, and 12 grams of sugars in all of their flavors, whereas other leading frozen yogurts have 105 calories, .4 grams fat, and 17 grams sugar, and other leading ice cream brands have 253 calories, 16 grams fat, and 22 grams sugar. Tasti D-Lite has been around since 1987, introducing the first concept of what it can mean to have a treat that has fewer calories, less fat, and that is still delicious. Not technically ice cream or yogurt, it’s "a dairy-based product that has lower calories, lower carbs, and lower sugars than the average frozen yogurt competitor," according to VP of marketing, Donna Smith. Taste true to flavor: 5 Base of real ingredients, not powder: 5 Consistency/texture: 5 Topping selection: 4 Topping freshness: 4 Health benefits: 5 Unique atmosphere/options: 4 Total: 32/35 Credit: Ruthieki-flickr
Yogurtland had a very good selection of flavors on tap, but the vanilla and chocolate flavors weren’t very pronounced; if we went back, we’d go for something a little more unique. The strawberry, however, was amazing, and the tart was out of order so the taro flavor took its place, and we couldn’t decide what exactly it reminded us of. It was sweet, but nutty, almost like hazelnut; whatever it was, it was certainly unique. Yogurtland got the number two because they had a huge range of flavor options, from the original to the never-before-seen, and they had a ton of toppings, and cost only $0.39 an ounce. Its health aspects are stellar, but what kept it at number two was accuracy of flavor; slightly stronger and more true-to-taste yogurts would really enhance the experience here. Besides that, it offers a great frozen yogurt selection and experience. In a ½ cup (83-grams serving), Yogurtland’s vanilla is 80 calories, 0 grams fat, and 6 grams of sugar, the chocolate is 100 calories, 0 grams fat, and 16 grams of sugar, the strawberry is 110 calories, 0 grams fat, and 17 grams sugar, and the taro is 110 calories, 0 grams fat, and 18 grams of sugar. Yogurtland opened in 2006 and is now worldwide, making its yogurt with a base of milk and authentically sourced ingredients. It’s packed with calcium and vitamins C and D, as well as live and active cultures in their probiotics. They offer seasonal fruit and tons of other toppings, from carob chips to cereal. Its environment is really bright and welcoming, too, which makes the experience there that much more enjoyable. Some of the crazier flavors they had included Bugs Bunny Carrot Cake, black sesame vanilla, strawberry banana taffy, chocolate coconut truffle, and taro. Taste true to flavor: 5 Base of real ingredients, not powder: 5 Consistency/texture: 5 Topping selection: 5 Topping freshness: 5 Health benefits: 5 Unique atmosphere/options: 4 Total: 34/35 Credit: ajcreencia-flickr
We finished our Sweet Frog fro-yo and immediately wanted more; the flavors and the toppings were unbelievable. Their toppings were pretty much the usual ones that you’d find at other chains plus some rarer ones, but the selection was almost overwhelming. Cookie dough, coconut, banana, and cheesecake bites were some toppings that we saw, along with interesting syrups like lemon, lime, and chocolate hazelnut. We sampled the Very Strawberry, which was creamy and fruity, Alpine Vanilla, which had a really strong vanilla flavor, White Peach Tea because they didn’t have tart, which was really refreshing and something new, and Red Velvet because they didn’t have chocolate, and we could have sworn we were eating a red velvet cake. It didn’t melt fast at all and was really creamy, but not too thick. Sweet Frog earned the number one place on our list because it’s the whole package: it has a huge selection of flavors and a wide array of toppings, a friendly and not-overbearing atmosphere, little to no fat in all their yogurts, and sugar content around 17 or 18 grams in a serving. In a 4-ounce serving, the Alpine Vanilla has 100 calories, 0 grams fat, and 18 grams sugar; the Very Strawberry has 100 calories, 0 grams fat, and 17 grams sugar; the White Peach Tea has 90 calories, 0 grams fat, and 16 grams sugar; and the Red Velvet has 120 calories, 2 grams fat, and 17 grams sugar. Sweet Frog began in 2009 and has a family-friendly environment with bright colors and paintings on the wall promoting their mascots, Scoop and Cookie. In an interesting twist, their "Frog" stands for "Fully Rely on God," a mission through which they partner with local organizations to become involved in the local community, according to their website. They offer other items, too, like waffle bowls, parfaits, and banana boats. Taste true to flavor: 5 Base of real ingredients, not powder: 5 Consistency/texture: 5 Topping selection: 5 Topping freshness: 5 Health benefits: 5 Unique atmosphere/options: 5 Total: 35/35 Click here to see All Frozen Yogurt Chains Taste-Tested Credit: VCU-CNS-flickr
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