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 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?


You Might Also Like


  • Reply Vilko September 23, 2023 at 8:22 pm

    So where does it really come from? This is a bit complicated, because the original thermophilic yogurt comes from Bulgaria, dating back around 4000 years! As yogurt spread into the Mediterranean region, you start seeing variations based on the type of animal milk used. Traditionally, both Bulgarian and Greek yogurts are made with sheep’s rather than cow’s milk (American Greek-style yogurt is made with cow’s milk),

  • Reply Amy March 13, 2023 at 8:53 pm

    Thank you, Elana for this info! I’m learning lots from your site and cookbook. While I can’t tolerate cow’s milk, I do fine with sheep’s and goat’s milk. It would be so helpful if you could recommend any brands here in the US or if I’m reading correctly, there aren’t any unless directly from Greece. If there are resources you can recommend that would be so appreciated! Thanks again for your work!

  • Reply Joan January 11, 2021 at 1:15 am

    I get sheep’s milk yogurt from Whole Foods. It’s made by Old Chatham Creamery in Groton, NY.

  • Reply Laura Young March 2, 2020 at 12:47 pm

    Where can you buy Greek yogurt made from goat’s milk in the U.S.? I love yogurt but have asthma so have been advised to eat yogurt made from sheep or goat’s milk. I much prefer Greek yogurt to regular, but haven’t had any luck finding it in the supermarkets. Can you help?

  • Reply Madeline November 21, 2019 at 4:22 am

    I commented on another post a few weeks ago and said that I was able to tolerate feta cheese even though I usually don’t do at all well on dairy products. I spoke too soon and began to experience severe constipation that decreased somewhat after I cut out the cheese. Well, since I’ve started this cuisine I’ve also been eating a lot more yogurt, and this seems to stop me up as well.

    I did some research and what I’ve read has been very enlightening. Commercial yogurt sold in the US, even if it’s sold as organic, probiotic, etc. is not truly the same as traditionally made yogurt. In days of old, not just in Greece but other traditional societies yogurt was made from fresh raw milk and it was fermented for at least 24 hours, which allowed a lot of time for the probiotics to form. And it wasn’t refrigerated for long periods of time, like is done today for shipping and storage purposes. The long periods of refrigeration also diminish the amount and effectiveness of the bacteria.

    Modern commercial yogurt is usually only fermented for about an hour and then stored and shipped for long periods of time in refrigeration, which also decreases the amount of beneficial lacto-bacteria. While it may have health benefits as the studies cite, it is not nearly as healthy as could be. It also can still be difficult for people to digest who have lactose intolerance, as I have been experiencing, which I was not expecting.

    It could be better for folks to learn to make their own yogurt, even if they use commercial pasteurized milk, because it gives us a chance to ferment it longer and allow for a shorter refrigeration time. Apparently this would not only increase the effectiveness of the beneficial bacteria, but actually create a greater number of different strains of these bacteria. Just some food for thought.

    I’m going to lay off the commercial yogurt for now and let my digestive tract return normal, and learn more about how to make it for myself, the old-school way and see how that works. In other words I would like to learn even more about the real traditional yogurt, at least for my own well-being. I don’t mean this as a criticism of your fine work and advice, just wanting to speak from my experience.

  • 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 John April 27, 2016 at 5:24 pm

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

    • Reply Heather September 10, 2019 at 10:45 pm

      Came here to ask this, but as you asked in 2016, not sure if there’s an answer?

      • Reply Deborah February 14, 2022 at 5:05 pm

        Yes, in 2022 is there an update in the U.S. for real Greek yogurt? I’m not really interested in making my own yogurt. Thanks for any info anyone may have.

  • 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 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 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 Anonymous September 23, 2012 at 11:59 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Is Total strained yogurt?

  • Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.