Will the Real Greek Yogurt Please Stand Up?

February 9, 2012

Traditional Greek Yogurts

Pretty much everybody knows what “Greek” yogurt is. In the last few years, this strained variety of yogurt has become a favorite. Why? Well it’s lower in carbs than regular yogurts, higher in protein, creamy, rich and basically an indulgence without all the negative consequences.

I put the word Greek in quotes because as much as I would like to say that “Greek” yogurt is a Greek idea, it’s not only Greek.  Strained yogurt also known as Greek yogurt, is used in many countries particularly in the Middle East and in the Balkans which also have a very strong yogurt tradition. But outside of those countries, this strained yogurt is considered very Greek. Many “Greek” yogurts have Greek names; for example Voskos, which means shepherd, or Oikos which means house and which by the way, is not pronounced oy-kos but ee-kos, I wish they would change that since oykos doesn’t really mean anything. We see commercials with YiaYia (Grandma) and John Stamos (Greek-American), but how popular is this Greek yogurt in Greece?

While the majority of yogurts sold in Greek super markets are strained, it’s not really considered some sort of super food, just an alternative yogurt that is creamier than the traditional kind. In the past, Greeks would mostly eat traditional yogurt made from leftover sheep’s milk after making cheese. This non-strained sheep’s milk yogurt that was stored in ceramic containers (and still is) was an important part of the traditional Greek diet and had multiple health benefits. Strained yogurt was available and it was known as the yogurt from the “bag”, because the yogurt was hung in fabric bags to be strained. This yogurt was considered “fancier” and was more expensive.

Today, many Greeks consider the regular-unstrained yogurt healthier. Parents will choose to give their children this type of traditional yogurt made from sheep or even goat’s milk and older Greeks also prefer this traditional yogurt. In fact, the strained “Greek” style yogurt is not even considered yogurt by many. My grandfather, who lived to be 102, would say “if the yogurt doesn’t have the whey in it, then it’s not yogurt”. Of course this was not just my grandfather’s opinion, there was a logic behind it: whey is a source of vitamins and minerals.

I compared the nutritional value of traditional yogurt made from sheep’s milk and traditional strained yogurt using information from the Preventative Medicine and Nutrition Clinic of the University of Crete. They have analyzed several traditional Greek foods and what I saw was that in fact traditional sheep’s milk yogurt had more protein, less calories, less fat and higher amounts of certain minerals as well as Omega-3 fatty acids than the strained yogurt. This information obviously does not apply to most of us, because first of all real traditional yogurt made from sheep’s milk is not so accessible. Secondly, the strained yogurt that they are referring to here is most likely from full fat milk. But what we do see is that strained yogurt was not any healthier than traditional yogurt made from sheep’s milk. Although it is not very clear what type of yogurt was consumed as part of the traditional Mediterranean diet found in Greece, it appears that most likely it is coming from this type of traditional yogurt and not the strained kind, which is more costly to produce. So for a person living in Greece who does have access to this traditional yogurt, the strained kind is not necessarily healthier. There is a trend that Greeks are starting to eat more of the traditional yogurts again. According to research from SymphonyIRI, sales of traditional (non-strained) yogurts in 2011 increased by 11% as they have been promoted as healthier.

Hmmm…maybe the Greeks should start exporting yogurt from sheep’s milk? The next new super food?

 

You Might Also Like

20 Comments

  • Reply Mike February 9, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    Is Total strained yogurt?

  • Reply Elena February 9, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    Hi Mike,
    Yes. Total from Fage is a strained yogurt.

  • Reply Erin February 9, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Fascinating, Elena! Thanks for shedding some light onto the history.

  • Reply 23 Interesting and Easy Ways to Use Greek Yogurt | Olive Tomato February 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    […] Interesting and Easy Ways to Use Greek Yogurt February 20, 2012Now that we’ve established what Greek traditional yogurt is (from sheep’s milk), we can talk about the famous strained […]

  • Reply Melissa August 27, 2012 at 3:16 am

    If you make yogurt from sheeps milk without draining the whey is it considered Greek Yogurt or Greek Style Yogurt?

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD August 28, 2012 at 9:35 pm

      Hi Melissa,
      The term Greek yogurt is just a way to describe strained yogurt. If we really want to name something “Greek yogurt” it would be yogurt that is made in Greece with milk from animals bred in Greece, its properties would come mainly from the milk, and the properties of the milk would come from what those animals eat, which differs depending on the country. So, the answer to your question is that it would be sheep’s milk yogurt, but it would be close to the yogurt that was consumed in the traditional Greek diet.

  • Reply Anonymous September 23, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing the history of ‘Greek’ yogurt.

  • Reply Somewhat of a "traditionalist" on food July 14, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    1. Glad that someone has at least written somewhere in the Anglophone Internet that the traditional (if one could define accuratelly such a word without doing first a thorough historical-scientific study, if the latter is possible in this case, that is) Greek yogurt was -sometimes still is- commonly and among other things (e.g. predominantly made from sheep milk, considering such yogurt the best) not strained or even if strained (leaving open the possibility that in other places in Greece people strained it or did in general things differently, see below) not in any way comparable to the modern industrial product; be it the “Greek” US kind or the Greek “proper” one in Greece, common industrial yogurt is something completely different from the “real” thing. I personnaly hate it; I like the more real or “real” thing with all its taste, fat, crust etc.

    Source: my mother who grew up in a remote, isolated, Greek mountain village, many, many decades ago, herding animals old style. They made the stuff using, in a descending order of presumed quality and prevalence, sheep>cow>goat milk. They put the stuff in an open ceramic or “copper” container-pan and left it there to become semi-solid. At winter when temperature prevents proper curdling, they wrapped it up inside a metal pan and put it next to the house fireplace again till it curdled; sticking a finger into it, feeling the temperature, was the method to predict taste of the “end-of-line” product.
    The goat kind btw , my source, tells me is very watery.

    2. The /Oykos/ pronunciation is not wrong per se; they’re just using the -approximate-ancient Greek pronunciation of the word, not the modern Greek one; “oi” in ancient Greek was a real diphthong, not a digraph.

    Source: google (or go to wikipedia) “iotacism”, “ancient Greek phonology” etc.

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD July 15, 2013 at 7:33 am

      Thank you for insights!

  • Reply David September 4, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    I would add that “straining yogurt” also removes the soluble non curd forming whey proteins and valuable water soluble vitamins along with that dreaded lactose. The longer and more active the yogurt is left to culture, the less lactose remains as lactose is used by the yogurt cultures to make the lactic acid that tastes sour. Sheep and goat’s milk have less curd forming proteins and more soluble whey proteins than cow’s milk. Different textures and tastes too. Lebanese Labneh is a strained cultured milk that is as thick as cream cheese but made from yogurt and heavily strained.

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD September 4, 2013 at 5:40 pm

      Thank you David for your comments.

  • Reply This is the Real Greek Yogurt | Olive Tomato May 19, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    […] of Crete. Let’s not forget that whey is actually a source of vitamins and minerals. Check this post for more information on […]

  • Reply Object: Sheep bells | Institute of Texan Cultures Collections Blog September 1, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    […] Sheep’s milk  is turned into a variety of cheeses, like feta and kasseri, and is used for traditional Greek yogurt. The leather from their hides are also used to make chamois cloth, and […]

  • Reply Do It Like the Greeks: Get Your Dairy From Yogurt. One Yogurt a Day Can Protect from Diabetes. | Olive Tomato December 27, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    […] So the lesson here is, start eating yogurt  everyday. Check out this link on different and fun ways of adding yogurt to your diet as well as here on how to choose the best yogurt. And if you want to know what the real Greek yogurt is, I explain it here. […]

  • Reply Gary LA March 3, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    Bravo Bravo Bravo Olive Tomato Elena – What a great lovely website of good honest helpful excellent Greek information for me an ignorant American born Greek – so Thankyou Efharisto Poly!!!!

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD March 5, 2016 at 6:41 am

      Thanks Gary!

  • Reply John April 27, 2016 at 5:24 pm

    Are there any brands sold in America that use goats’ milk to make “greek” yogurt?

  • Reply Sharron September 8, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    So are you telling me that the Greek yogurt that we buy today is not the real Greek yogurt Also what is real olive oil. What brands are the real thing. Thanks

  • Reply 5 Things Most People Get Wrong About Greek Food | Olive Tomato April 27, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    […] all. Unfortunately, especially in U.S. the term Greek has come to mean strained yogurt, not actual Greek yogurt. In reality, in order for a yogurt to be considered Greek, it must be made in Greece using Greek […]

  • Leave a Reply