December 2018 Issue
The Scoop on Vegan Yogurts
By Densie Webb, PhD, RD
Vol. 20, No. 12, P. 28
With nondairy yogurt alternatives becoming more popular, RDs must inform clients about their wide variety of nutrient profiles so they can make the most healthful choices.
Mention yogurt and most people think of dairy-based yogurts. After all, sales in the US dairy yogurt industry were just shy of $9 billion in 2017.1 But the market for plant-based yogurt alternatives, or vegan yogurts, is also growing. Plant-based foods in general, from snack bars to ice cream, cheese, and meat substitutes, are increasingly popular.
Among the large variety of plant-based food options, vegan yogurts are a standout. While no consumption figures are readily available for vegan yogurts, plant-based yogurts experienced a 31% increase in sales from April 2017 to April 2018.2 What's more, the market research firm Future Market Insights reports that sales are expected to increase 4.9% yearly through 2027, a result of an increasingly health-conscious population.
Nondairy, plant-based yogurts are available in an array of flavors, ranging from the basic plain and vanilla to key lime and pineapple brulée. They're made from soy, coconut, almond, cashew, oat, and/or flax milks, and at least one brand is pea-based; new products based on other ingredients such as hemp are in the pipeline.3
Vegan yogurts vary widely not only in flavor and texture but in nutrition as well. In fact, the nutrient profiles vary considerably more than similarly flavored dairy yogurts.
While there's a lot to place in the "pro" column for vegan yogurts, there are also a few cons that clients and patients should be aware of. "Choosing nondairy yogurts requires the same diligence that you would need when choosing nondairy beverages," says Debbie King, MS, RDN, LD, FAND, of Crown Consulting in Belton, Texas, who suggests that when selecting a vegan yogurt, first ask the following questions:
• What's the protein content?
• Is it fortified with calcium?
• What sweetener(s) is/are being used, and how much is added?
Vegan yogurts supply protein from almonds, cashews, flaxseeds, soy, and peas. Some vegan yogurts, such as two products listed in the table made with cashew milk or pea protein, are significantly high in protein. Aside from the single yogurt in the table with 13 g protein (made with cashew milk), the others range from 0 to 8 g per 5.3 or 6 oz container.
The lower the protein content of vegan yogurts, the less likely they are to be satisfying and stave off hunger.
Most vegan yogurts fall within the 120 to 180 kcal range per container, similar to dairy yogurts. Only one brand, made with coconut cream, checked in at 367 kcal per 5.3 oz container.
Generally the driver of calories in vegan yogurts, fat content ranges from about 3 g per container to as high as 37 g—again a yogurt made with coconut cream.
The added sugar content of vegan yogurts can be as high as, if not higher than, dairy yogurts. Because added sugars aren't separated on the Nutrition Facts label for all products, the amount of sugars listed includes added sugars, added fruit, and natural sugars from the main ingredients.
Sugar content of the vegan yogurts in the table ranges from 7 to 24 g per container (1 1/2 to 6 tsp). Flavored yogurts, of course, contain the most sugar, and plain yogurts the least. Recommend clients and patients opt for plain varieties and add flavorful toppings such as berries, granola, pumpkin seeds, raisins, or dried cranberries to cut back on added refined sugars.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium and vitamin D are two nutrients of particular concern for vegans. If clients or patients are looking to vegan yogurts to boost calcium intake, they should be aware that, as with plant-based milks, calcium content varies greatly, from 0% to 25% DV, depending on whether they've been fortified with the mineral.
Vitamin D is less commonly found in vegan yogurts. Of the 15 products in the table, only five are fortified with vitamin D, ranging in amounts from 15% to 25% DV.
As do dairy-based yogurts, all of the vegan yogurts contain probiotic bacteria, but the species and amounts vary tremendously.
Dairy yogurts are required by law to be made with Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus. These bacteria consume the lactose in milk and produce lactic acid, the ingredient that gives dairy yogurt a distinctive tangy taste. However, unlike dairy yogurts, there's no official definition or requirement for nondairy yogurts.
If a client or patient is looking for specific strains of beneficial bacteria, not all nondairy yogurts provide that information. Of those that do, bacterial strains can include those used in producing dairy yogurt but also may encompass Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and Bifidobacterium bifidus.
All vegan yogurts are, of course, cholesterol-free, and most are low in fiber, as are most dairy yogurts. Most of the vegan yogurts included in the table provide 1 to 2 g fiber per container; two products provide 3 g fiber. They're either free of saturated fat or contain 0.5 to 1 g, with the exception of the yogurts made with coconut cream, which can contain as much as 4 g saturated fat per container.
The presence of coconut cream isn't always obvious in the name. Daiya Greek Yogurt Alternative, for example, says nothing about coconut in the product name, but coconut cream is listed as an ingredient. Products that contain coconut cream are always higher in fat and saturated fat, but all vegan yogurts are free of trans fats.
Reading the Nutrition Facts label on a product is the only way to know what other nutrients vegan yogurts contain. For example, because vegan yogurts are plant-based, vitamin B12 isn't an expected nutrient. However, So Delicious Dairy Free Coconutmilk Yogurt Alternative provides 25% DV, and Good Karma Dairy Free Yogurt provides 15% DV.
In the one vegan yogurt in the table made from flaxseed milk, the flaxseed provides 800 mg of omega-3 fatty acids as alpha-linolenic acid per 6 oz container.
"Vegan yogurts have a health halo, but they can still contain gums, stabilizers, high-intensity sweeteners, and artificial colors," says Debbie Petitpain, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. If clients are looking for so-called "clean" foods with a minimum number of ingredients, not all vegan yogurts fit the bill.
Ingredients in plant-based yogurts vary widely and can include tricalcium phosphate, dextrose agar, locust gum, cornstarch, titanium dioxide, and maltodextrin. Reading ingredient labels is the only way to know for sure what a vegan yogurt contains.
Another variation to consider is taste. "Yogurts with a nondairy milk, such as soymilk or coconut milk, listed as the first ingredient will more likely mimic yogurt's classic creamy texture than those made primarily from water. And the live, active cultures may provide a more traditional tangy taste," Petitpain says.
It's also worth noting that taste and texture can vary dramatically, even among vegan yogurts of the same flavor variety and made from the same base.
"The price point of vegan yogurts can be prohibitive," Petitpain says. But, she adds, "Like traditional yogurts, consumers can easily make vegan versions at home at a fraction of the cost."
At least one company, Cultures for Health, offers a starter kit that makes 8 quarts for about $1/cup. However, be sure to remind clients that homemade vegan yogurt will be only as nutritious as the nondairy milk they use when making it; protein, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 content of the nondairy milk should be considered.
Allergies and Intolerances
All vegan yogurts, by definition, are lactose-free and free of milk proteins, which is good news for those with lactose intolerance or a milk allergy. However, someone with a soy or nut allergy will have to be extra careful, even when eating in vegan restaurants, to ensure that any dish with yogurt as an ingredient isn't a vegan yogurt made from soy, almond, or cashew milk.
For example, Danone, the world's largest maker of yogurt, offers Silk and Vega vegan yogurts, both of which are soy or nut based. One brand, Lavva, contains pili nuts, a type of tree nut native to Southeast Asia.
Zoe Halbert, RD, of Austin, Texas, a newly minted dietitian who's vegan and has a severe nut allergy, says, "I haven't found a great alternative for someone allergic to nuts, like me, but I usually choose coconut- or soy-based yogurts."
Nondairy Frozen Yogurts
Several frozen yogurt shops, including Yoga-urt, TCBY, Tutti Frutti, Piccadilly, 16 Handles, and Red Mango, offer nondairy yogurt options. However, finding out specific ingredients and complete nutrition information often is more difficult than with products available in the supermarket.
Some company websites offer detailed nutrition information and ingredients, but writing to the manufacturer to obtain specifics may be the best approach. For clients and patients with food allergies or sensitivities, it's important to note that several of these nondairy frozen yogurt products are made with almond milk or soymilk and also may contain other common allergenic ingredients such as gluten. With frozen products from chain outlets, there's also the question of whether an allergenic ingredient has been previously in the dispenser and how thoroughly it has been sanitized.
Making the Choice
The choices for vegan yogurts have grown exponentially over the past several years and likely will expand even more in the near future. Products have to be evaluated individually, even within a single brand, as there doesn't appear to be a distinct pattern or trend for nutrients or ingredients. Individual nutrient needs of clients and patients also play an important role in making choices, as single nutrients range from 0% DV to well over 100%.
As manufacturers get more inventive and innovative with flavors and ingredients, it will become even more important to know what's in each product. "But, in the end," Petitpain says, "the top vegan yogurt will be the one that best delivers on taste, texture, and price."
— Densie Webb, PhD, RD, is a freelance writer, editor, and industry consultant based in Austin, Texas.
1. Turcsik R. Yogurt sales approach $9 billion. Supermarket News website. https://www.supermarketnews.com/dairy/yogurt-sales-approach-9-billion. Published February 2, 2018. Accessed October 18, 2018.
2. Category spotlight: yogurt. Progressive Grocer website. https://progressivegrocer.com/category-spotlight-yogurt. Published July 23, 2018. Accessed October 17, 2018.
3. Category insight: non-dairy yogurt. FONA International website. http://www.fona.com/category-insight-non-dairy-yogurt. Published April 19, 2018. Accessed October 16, 2018.