Why You Can’t Remember Life Before Greek Yogurt

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Christine Han)

It’s hard to imagine a time without Greek yogurt on the supermarket shelves and in our fridges, but it was only a decade ago that I remember a colleague in the staff break room telling me, “You have to try this yogurt! It’s called Fage, like fa-yeh.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. I tried it and one taste of the tart, thick, and creamy yogurt was all I needed — after years of consuming watery, overly sweetened yogurt — to become hooked.

That was back in 2007. Fage Total had quietly been in the U.S. for several years, and Chobani was just about to launch. Greek yogurt was only one percent of the market share then; today, it’s roughly 50 percent, according to market-research firm Technavio. Even more: The Greek yogurt industry is expected to reach a value of $4.7 billion.

Food fads come and go all the time, so how does Greek yogurt still continue to dominate the dairy aisle here?

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Hint: It’s the Healthy Promise

“Yogurt has always been a better-for-you snack, and Greek yogurt took that a step further with more protein and cutting sugar,” says Lara Gish, category manager for Tillamook, a farmer-owned dairy co-op in Tillamook, Oregon, which sells both Greek- and traditional-style yogurt.

Because it is condensed, Greek yogurt packs more nutrition into the same-sized serving. (Although it also tends to cost more: The average price for a four- to six-ounce cup of regular yogurt is 50 cents, while it’s 97 cents for Greek yogurt, according to a March 2017 USDA dairy report).

Greek yogurt costs more because yogurt-makers take the time to strain the heck out of it, removing much of the liquid whey and lactose. What’s left is very attractive in today’s health-conscious market: roughly double the amount of protein and half as much sugar, in about same number of calories as regular yogurt.

1 cup of Greek yogurt offers a whopping 20 grams of protein.
See how that stacks up against other favorite breakfast foods here. (Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Warning: Not All Greek Yogurts Are Created Equal

Whenever there’s a healthy fad, there are always going to be some companies trying to make a buck, of course. Which means there are yogurts that aren’t what you’d expect. Luckily, there are some key things to look for on labels to make sure you’re getting the best stuff, according to a 2015 report out of Kansas State University.

While most Greek yogurt is produced through the straining method, some manufacturers instead add protein concentrates and thickeners to regular yogurt in order to make “Greek” yogurt, explains Mary Meck Higgins, a nutritionist at Kansas State.

To make sure you’re getting the real thing, avoid brands with ingredients like whey concentrates, gelatin, or modified cornstarch on the ingredients label. Also compare it to a traditional yogurt at the store and make sure it has more protein, fewer carbs, less sugar, and less sodium for about the same number of calories, she advises.

Or make it yourself: How To Make Greek-Style Yogurt

The Future of Yogurt

Whether you’re into the tang or not, thick and creamy does seem to be the direction we’re going with when it comes to yogurt of the future, though: For example, this winter, the 108-year-old Tillamook revamped its traditional yogurt line to make it creamier, with 25 percent less sugar, and added a Farmstyle Whole Milk Greek Yogurt — ads for it show an upside-down spoon, with yogurt suspended in the air.

And General Mills (the company behind Yoplait) has seen deep declines in sales numbers, which execs blame on not having enough Greek yogurts on shelves and, until recently, no organic products.

As popular as the Greek yogurt movement seems to be, it’s got some serious competition that could cause it to lose steam. For one, yogurt smoothies, kefir, and other drinks are seeing double-digit growth because they can be eaten without a spoon and are more convenient for busy lifestyles. There’s also the very thick Icelandic yogurt, skyr, with Siggi’s being one of the fastest-growing national yogurt brands of the moment.

What country will inspire our yogurt 10 years from now? Who knows, but I’m guessing it’ll be thick — or drinkable.

What kind of yogurt do you prefer?