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 and the Hellenic Health Foundation lead by Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou. 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?