Just what is frozen yogurt?

You’ve just finished a 10-mile bike ride, you’re feeling virtuous but a little peckish.

Maybe your 8-year-old is clamoring for a treat.

Or perhaps you’ve just baked a fresh fruit cobbler and are looking to top it with something that won’t counteract its healthful properties.

There’s probably some frozen yogurt in your immediate future.

So, is frozen yogurt healthier than ice cream? It depends on your definition of healthy.

Calories, fat, sugar

Most frozen yogurts, indeed, have fewer calories and less fat than most ice creams. A half cup of Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, a so-called super premium brand, contains 250 calories and 17 grams of fat. Carvel vanilla ice cream contains 175 calories and 9.7 grams of fat. The same amount of most nonfat frozen yogurts contains between 80 and 100 calories, and 0 grams of fat.

(Low-fat frozen yogurt, however, is comparable to low-fat ice cream: YoCream French vanilla frozen yogurt contains 100 calories and 3 grams of fat; Edy’s Slow Churned low-fat vanilla ice cream contains 100 calories and 3.5 grams of fat.)

When it comes to sugar, however, look out. Most frozen yogurt contains as much, if not more, sugar than ice cream. Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream has 19 grams of sugar, Edy’s Grand ice cream has 13 grams. TCBY, Swirls and Twirls, 16 Handles and Red Mango vanilla frozen yogurt contain 17 to 19 grams of sugar.

All this nutritional information is based on 83 grams, or about a ½-cup serving of frozen yogurt, a quantity that hardly measures up to what’s in most people’s cups. If you filled the smallest cup available at Red Mango to the brim, for example, that would be more than 1 ½ cups. And just try figuring out what 83 grams is; yogurt shop scales measure in either pounds or ounces. (For the record, 83 grams is equivalent to 2.92 ounces or 0.18 pounds.)

It goes without saying that once you add the chopped Heath Bars, Gummi Bears, rainbow sprinkles and nuts, all healthful nutritional bets are off.

A question of culture

Some people choose frozen yogurt over ice cream because they believe it contains “probiotics,” the current nutritional darlings that are beginning to eclipse antioxidants. Probiotics are live micro organisms (such as bacteria and yeasts) that, when ingested, amplify the effectiveness of the body’s own micro flora, supposedly strengthening digestive and immune health.

Regular (i.e. nonfrozen) yogurt must contain live active bacteria or federal law says it can’t be called yogurt. Moreover, federal regulations require that yogurt achieve a defined level of acidity. It’s lactic acid, a natural byproduct of all those live bacteria, that lends yogurt its characteristic tang.

Frozen yogurt, however, is not federally regulated. It need not contain live bacteria; it doesn’t have to taste tangy.

The situation isn’t quite so bleak, however. Most frozen yogurts do contain live bacteria and many bear the “Live & Active Cultures” seal conferred by the National Yogurt Association trade group. However, to get the seal, frozen yogurt must contain only a tenth of the live active cultures that nonfrozen yogurt must have, and evince only a third of the acidity.

Unregulated product

The lack of federal oversight is at the heart of the confusion surrounding frozen yogurt. Bruce Tharp, founder of the Pennsylvania-based international ice-cream consultancy Tharp’s Food Technology, has been teaching professional courses on frozen desserts for decades.

“Frozen yogurt,” he said, “is pretty much anything that people want to call frozen yogurt.”

It wasn’t always that way. During the ’70s, frozen yogurt’s initial heyday, Tharp said, manufacturers did make frozen yogurt from yogurt. “That didn’t last long,” he said. “It tasted sour and other than yogurt aficionados, people didn’t like it.”

Eventually, most manufacturers reformulated the product to be less sour, and they added sugar to balance whatever acidity remained.

Tharp explained that most of today’s frozen yogurt starts with a liquid mixture of dairy and sugar similar to what is used to make nonfat or low-fat soft-serve ice cream. To this is added another unsweetened mixture that contains yogurt – the proportion is usually about one third yogurt mix to two thirds “soft-serve” mix.

The combined mix is poured into a batch freezer – just like soft serve – and what comes out is frozen yogurt.

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