Great Debate: Is Greek Yogurt Really Better than Regular Yogurt?

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Erin Wengrovius)

Welcome to the Great Debates, where we consider the greatest nutritional controversies of our time. Our goal isn’t to tell you what to think or do, but rather to present both sides of hot-button issues, like coffee (is it good for you?) and breakfast (the most important meal of the day?). What’s being said? Who’s saying it? Then it’s up to you to make your own decisions.

It’s not a secret that yogurt has been associated with a number of health benefits. Regular yogurt-eaters gain less weight, over the course of a year, than their occasional yogurt-eating peers! They are more likely to have lower blood pressure! Probiotic yogurts promote healthy gut bacteria, which, recent studies suggest, could in turn improve brain function!

And even if it turns out that none of that is true — as usual, more research is needed; ideally research that’s not funded by yogurt companies — yogurt still has a lot going for it. At the very least, it is a good source of vitamins (B2 and B12), minerals (calcium, magnesium, zinc), and high-quality protein.

But what yogurt, exactly, should you eat? Is Greek yogurt better than regular yogurt? Does it matter? What does “better” mean, anyway?

(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

First: What’s the Difference Between Greek Yogurt and Regular Yogurt?

Greek yogurt and regular yogurt are made more or less the same way. Here is our own Christine Gallary walking us through the process for both.

Milk is first heated, then cooled to the desired fermentation temperature (106°F to 114°F) before bacterial cultures are added. The mixture is then left to ferment until the bacteria grow, produce lactic acid, and gel the milk proteins to produce regular yogurt.

But here is where their paths diverge. To make Greek yogurt Greek, regular yogurt is “strained extensively to remove liquid whey and lactose, leaving behind a thicker-textured yogurt.” (Also, a whole lot of environmentally hazardous excess whey, which, so far no one has quite figured out what to do with. They’re working on it.)

Or at least, that is the traditional process. As Prevention points out, there aren’t actually any rules about what counts as “Greek yogurt,” which means there’s no guarantee it’s getting that creamy tang through the classic (but expensive) straining process, and not through added proteins (like milk protein concentrates) and extra thickeners (like cornstarch).

Let us assume, though, for the sake of this article, that we are talking about traditional Greek yogurt, made using some version of the method outlined above. Is that Greek yogurt nutritionally superior to the regular stuff? The short answer is maybe. The longer answer is that it depends on your specific needs.

Yogurt and Calories, Sugar, and Protein: +1 Greek Yogurt

In a yogurt vs. yogurt face-off, U.S. News and World Report gives the Greek stuff the “undeniable edge,” noting that “in roughly the same amount of calories, it can pack up to double the protein, while cutting sugar content by half.” (That is, assuming we’re comparing plain, unsweetened yogurts; once you start adding sweeteners and fruit flavors, the carb count skyrockets, no matter what kind of base yogurt it is.)

Yogurt and Sodium: +1 Greek Yogurt

Another advantage of going Greek: Greek yogurt is lower in sodium, with roughly half the salt content of the regular kind. And, thanks to the straining process, Greek yogurt is lower in lactose, which means it can be somewhat friendlier to the lactose-intolerant. (Your mileage may vary.)

Yogurt and Calcium: +1 Regular Yogurt

But regular yogurt has some nutritional benefits, too. It trounces Greek yogurt when it comes to calcium content. According to EatingWell’s calculations, a cup of regular yogurt contains nearly twice the calcium you’d find in a cup of Greek yogurt. That’s not to say Greek yogurt isn’t also a solid calcium source — just that regular yogurt is better. If bone health is your primary concern, you might be better off with a low-sugar, standard-issue option, because Greek yogurt loses some of its calcium content in the straining process.

Yogurt and Fat: It’s a tie!

And then there’s the minefield that is fat. Both types of yogurt come in low- and no-fat varieties, which, on some level, makes them totally identical. Fat-free Greek yogurt has exactly the same fat content as fat-free regular yogurt (none). But full-fat Greek yogurt has about three times the saturated fat content of full-fat regular yogurt. And depending on your particular nutritional needs and the rest of your diet, that might be fine! If not, though, it might be worth replacing full-fat Greek yogurt with a lower-fat version.

In Conclusion: Eat the Yogurt You Want

Truly, as long you keep an eye on the sugar content, you cannot go wrong. When it comes to plain yogurt, the only bad kind is the stuff that has started to smell weird.

If we tally up their individual merits, Greek yogurt may indeed be the “better” option, although, as is so often the case, in nutrition and in life, that does not necessarily mean it is the better option for you.

Do you have strong feelings about yogurt, health-related or otherwise? We would like to hear them.