Probiotic yogurt can be a delicious and easy way to get some beneficial bugs into babies’ tummies. However, just the simple act of picking up yogurt in the grocery store can be daunting. There is often an entire aisle dedicated to yogurt made from various milks or plants and made in different “styles” which impart different flavors and textures and alter the nutritional composition.
When you want your yogurt to benefit your gut, how do you choose? Read on to learn about yogurt processing, what the research is saying about those supposed health benefits, and how to choose the best probiotic yogurt for your family.
What is yogurt?
Yogurt is made through a process known as fermentation. Fermentation happens when microorganisms like yeast and bacteria break down food components (e.g. sugars such as glucose) into other products (e.g. organic acids, gasses, or alcohol).
As defined by the 2003 Codex Standard for Fermented Milks, yogurt must contain viable, live, and abundant cultures of Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus species at a minimum concentration of 107 CFU/g at the time of manufacture. That’s 10 million bacteria in each gram of yogurt! These bacteria break down sugars and starches making lactic acid. The process of fermentation substantially lowers the pH level, meaning it makes the yogurt more acidic .
The acidic environment causes the proteins in the milk to coagulate, giving it that creamy texture. This viscosity offers protection for the living probiotic bacteria, preventing them from breaking down. Amazing to think of all the science happening inside your yogurt cup!
Most yogurt that you’ll find in the store has been pasteurized first, meaning all native microorganisms have been heat-killed (the exception is raw milk yogurt). Bacteria that will turn the pasteurized milk into yogurt are added to start the fermentation process. After fermentation, manufacturers will often pasteurize the yogurt again to increase shelf life, but this kills off the bacteria. These are no longer probiotic yogurts. Therefore, it is important to look for products with the label “contains live and active cultures”. This guarantees that your yogurt will contain at least 10 million living bacteria at the end of its shelf life .
Yogurt made from raw milk has not undergone the process of pasteurization, meaning that it still contains some of its own microbes, some of which may be beneficial (probiotic) and some of which may be harmful (pathogenic). There are studies that suggest unpasteurized dairy products may have immunological benefits such as protection against atopy, asthma, and respiratory illnesses for children , ; however choosing a safe product may be challenging. The raw milk institute  is one resource when searching for reputable sources of raw milk products. But remember, a pasteurized yogurt with a “live and active cultures” label will contain the good bugs without a chance of harboring some bad bugs!
Probiotic Yogurt Benefits
Feeding yourself and your family probiotic yogurt has the benefits of providing energy and nutrients that are lacking with capsule probiotic supplements. Additionally, many studies have shown that probiotic bacteria survive the journey through your upper intestinal tract better when ingested via yogurt, as dairy products offer unique protection for the bacteria against stomach and other digestive acids , .
Dairy yogurt is a rich source of dietary minerals, with a 50% higher concentration of calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and zinc than is found in milk . Additionally, the acidic qualities of yogurt (achieved through fermentation) could enhance the bioavailability of these minerals .
The table below highlights the nutrient content in different types of yogurts:
There are a number of studies indicating the positive effects of eating yogurt on human health:
- Eating probiotic yogurt has been shown to increase levels of the beneficial bacteria Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium without causing a disruption to the overall balance of microbial communities in the gut .
- Daily consumption of yogurt by healthy adults increased the number and amounts of bacterial species in the gut and was associated with reduced stress-associated abdominal symptoms .
- There is evidence that probiotics can be considered a preventive and therapeutic option in gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM). Multiple studies showed a correlation between probiotic yogurt consumption and a significant reduction in fasting glucose levels as well as better control of overall blood glucose. Furthermore, these studies show a statistically significant association between probiotic yogurt and a reduced risk of developing GDM .
- A yogurt combination of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Bifidobacterium lactis is an effective method for reducing the incidence of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in children. Multiple studies have shown the effectiveness of giving probiotic yogurt to children after antibiotic treatments to reduce diarrhea ,  and reduce E. coli levels .
Supercharged Probiotics: Kefir fermented milk & Greek style yogurt
Greek yogurt is produced in the same way as regular yogurt. However, at the end of the yogurt processing, the whey and other liquid is strained out of it, resulting in a thicker, tangier, and higher-protein yogurt. Due to this extra straining step, Greek yogurt tends to have slightly lower amounts of sugar. On the other hand, regular yogurt has a higher calcium content. So choosing one over the other could depend on your nutrition priorities.
Can babies have Greek yogurt? Absolutely! And if your goal is to maximize the amount of protein or to give a dairy product with a little less lactose than regularly processed yogurt, Greek yogurt can be a great choice.
Kefir, often known as the “best probiotic drink”, is usually made by the fermentation of milk with the kefir grains, which contain large numbers of the addition of Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and probiotic yeast (e.g. Saccharomyces boulardii) . Kefir is often hailed as having far more bacterial species than conventional yogurt. Somewhere between 12-20 microbial species have been isolated from kefir . Consuming kefir has been shown to help keep things moving through your digestive tract, especially in people who may have sluggish transit times that can result in constipation , .
You can also make a non-dairy version of kefir, known as “water kefir”. Water kefir has a different microbial composition than milk kefir and is started with different kefir grains than its milk counterpart but water kefir can be a significant probiotic and prebiotic source for vegans and people who are allergic to dairy products .
Lactose Intolerance & Yogurt
Yogurt can be a great choice for those who suffer from lactose intolerance.
- Yogurt contains less lactose than milk. The process of fermentation facilitates the breakdown of lactose into glucose and galactose - which means that lactose “digestion” has begun even before you consume it. Additionally, some yogurt, like Greek yogurt, is strained multiple times to remove most of the whey which in turn removes much of the lactose. A cup of milk contains 12 grams of lactose, compared to a 6 ounce container of Greek yogurt which only contains 4 grams .
- The probiotic bacteria in yogurt helps with lactose digestion. Studies have shown that consuming yogurt often relieves uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms associated with lactose malabsorption. Furthermore, regular consumption could help you build a bigger tolerance for lactose as the helpful bacteria from the yogurt may hang around to aid in the digestion of other lactose-containing foods .
Plant-based yogurts are typically made from nuts such as almonds and cashews, or other foods such as soybeans, plantains, oats, and peas. Many of these alternatives make a convincing dairy substitute based on texture and flavor. But are plant-based yogurts healthy for you? How do they stack up nutritionally against their animal milk counterparts?
From the table above, we can see that plant-based yogurts tend to be lower in protein, calcium and vitamin B12. While getting these added nutrients in your probiotic dairy yogurt is a plus, plant-based yogurts can still be a rich source of probiotics for those that cannot have dairy and it is very easy to boost specific minerals or protein levels in your favorite non-dairy yogurt with the addition of powdered supplements and nut butters.
To make plant-based yogurt taste and look more like dairy yogurt, manufacturers often add acidity regulators, thickeners, protein extracts, and emulsifiers . Human and animal studies suggest that emulsifiers like CMC and P80 can promote gut inflammation and negatively impact gut microbiome composition , , while other emulsifiers such as gum arabic and arabinogalactan seem to be safe to eat and may even have beneficial effects on the microbiome , . This is another reason why it is important to read the labels when choosing between brands.
Incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet is a good thing, especially for your gut microbiome, and while whole plant foods like nuts are very nutritious, that doesn’t always translate when they’re processed into packaged foods. Fortunately, plant-based yogurts that contain “live and active cultures” can be a great way to get those probiotic bacteria if you are avoiding dairy products altogether. As with any processed foods, some choices are better than others; it’s important to read the label and stay away from those with high amounts of added sugar and questionable additives.
A Note on Frozen Yogurt
Frozen yogurt is not the same as traditional yogurt. Unlike traditional yogurt, it doesn't need to meet any specific government standards to call itself yogurt, and sometimes it's not actually yogurt at all. If a frozen yogurt does have live and active cultures, it will often have fewer of them than its refrigerated counterparts. The International Dairy Foods Association requires refrigerated yogurts to have 100 million cultures per gram in order to bear its "Live & Active Cultures" seal, but a frozen yogurt product needs to have only 10 million cultures per gram . And, frozen yogurt is often loaded with sugar.
What about breastfeeding mamas: does the probiotic bacteria from yogurt transfer to the baby?
Dietary choices that support the gut health of a breastfeeding mom will always benefit both mom and baby. We know that the mother's microbiota is transferred through breastmilk and that the intake of probiotic bacteria, either through food or by supplementation can affect the probiotic composition of breastmilk . However, the probiotic bacteria in food does not pass to an infant directly via breastmilk . What this means is while mom will benefit from eating probiotic yogurt, the baby is not getting the bacteria from the yogurt through breastfeeding.
When can I give my baby yogurt?
You can introduce yogurt to your baby between 6-8 months of age . Yogurt is nutrient-dense, and can be a great first food, but consult your pediatrician if there is someone in the family with a dairy allergy. You may be advised to wait until your baby is closer to 12 months. You can introduce plain yogurt to your baby as is, or you can mix a small teaspoon of yogurt with a baby food puree that your baby is already familiar with.
How to Choose the Best Yogurt for Babies
Now that you’ve learned more than you thought there was to know about yogurt, the question remains: how to choose the right one? That depends on your desired health benefits, dietary preferences, and possible sensitivities.
When shopping for yogurt for your baby (and for older children and adults), look for the following:
- For dairy yogurt: made with whole, organic, or grass-fed milk.
- For plant-based yogurt: the fewer additives, the better!
- Always check sugar content, as both dairy and plant-based yogurts can be loaded with added sugar (skip the ones with “toppings” like cookie crumbles or added flavorings).
- Check the label for the words “live and active cultures.”
- Check for the names of bacteria, such as Lactobacillus, Streptococcus, and Bifidobacterium - some of the specific species you may want to look for include: L. bulgaricus, S. thermophilus, L. acidophilus, B.bifidum, L. casei, and L. rhamnosus.
You can also easily make milk kefir and yogurt at home!