Food Group Superfoods: Milk Products (Part 7)

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We’re making a lot of progress, going through each of the food groups and highlighting some of the superstars. I’ve received some great comments on this series and I truly hope that it at least opens your eyes to all the fabulous, healthful foods that are available. This week, I’ll focus on a couple of dairy foods that are standouts. (See “Food Group Superfoods: Vegetables (Part 6)” for information about onions and celery.)

What it offers: I remember there being a yogurt called “Firm ’N Fruity” when I was little; it came in a container the size of a Hoodsie Cup (remember those?). You’d flip it over and stick a fork in the bottle, and the yogurt would pop out, covered with a sugary fruit topping. At that time, though, there weren’t all that many types or flavors of yogurt to choose from. Today, there are so many varieties of yogurt in the grocery store that they’re practically taking over! You can get yogurt that’s chocolate flavored and yogurt with added fiber. You can even get yogurt in a liquid form.

Yogurt is a fermented dairy product, which means that it’s made by adding live bacterial cultures to milk. The cultures turn the lactose in the milk into lactic acid. This food dates back to ancient times when, as the story goes, milk was carried in a bag made from a goat’s stomach. The bacteria from the stomach “fermented” the milk, thus making yogurt. (You can make your own yogurt, too, but I’d advise not using an animal’s stomach to do so!). The word yogurt comes from the Turkish word yoghurmak, which means “to thicken.”

As you might guess, yogurt is an excellent source of calcium. It also provides iodine, phosphorous, protein, vitamins B2 and B12, potassium, and zinc. And if you’ve been boning up on your nutrition, you probably know that yogurt is a source of probiotics. Probiotics are strains of (safe) bacteria cultures that provide certain health benefits, such as helping to maintain a healthy immune system, easing symptoms of certain gastrointestinal disorders (like irritable bowel syndrome), lowering LDL (also known as “bad”) cholesterol and raising HDL (also known as “good”) cholesterol, and helping prevent urinary tract infections, yeast infections, and some types of cancer. It’s a good idea to eat yogurt with active cultures if you’re taking an antibiotic or if you’ve had diarrhea, because the yogurt will help restore the good bacteria in your gut. Some people who are lactose intolerant can actually tolerate yogurt because the amount of lactose in the yogurt is less than in milk. Also, yogurt might be helpful for people with diabetes by helping to improve glucose and blood pressure levels. (See “Diabetes and Dairy: Soy Yogurt — As Good As Insulin?” for more information.)

Nutrition info: One cup of plain, fat-free yogurt has 127 calories, 19 grams of carbohydrate, 0.5 grams fat, and almost 500 milligrams of calcium. Plain yogurt has a glycemic index of 14, while fruited yogurts are slightly higher, with a glycemic index of about 36.

What to look for/how to use: Choose nonfat or low-fat yogurt that has the words “Live & Active Cultures” on the container — this way, you’ll know you’re getting good bacteria. Also, go easy on the heavily fruited yogurt. Small amounts of it are fine, but the carbohydrate content can be high. Try the new, popular, nonfat or low-fat Greek yogurts for a thicker, smooth texture. Yogurt is great anytime, as part of a meal or a snack. Use it in place of sour cream, or make a refreshing dip for vegetables by stirring in chopped cucumber and dill.

What it offers: Another fermented milk product is kefir. Kefir is a drink that originated more than 2,000 years ago in the Caucasus Mountains. Kefir is made from kefir “grains,” a combination of bacteria, yeast, protein, fats, and sugars that are added to cow, sheep, or goat milk. The grains themselves look a little like cauliflower.

Kefir is a popular beverage with any meal in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and in several Scandinavian countries. In the U.S., kefir comes in different flavors. Fresh fruit, honey, or vanilla are often added to kefir, as it’s rather sour on its own. It’s also used in Russia and Lithuania to make cold soups. Much like yogurt, kefir contains probiotics, but in more abundance than yogurt.

The health claims associated with drinking kefir include an enhanced immune system, improved digestion, cancer prevention, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and prevention of yeast overgrowth. Kefir may also hasten improvement of diarrhea in infants. Kefir is a good source of calcium, protein, various vitamins, and potassium.

Nutrition info: One cup of plain, low-fat kefir contains 120 calories, 12 grams of carbohydrate, 2 grams of fat, and 300 milligrams of calcium. The glycemic index of kefir is apparently low, although I was not able to find a specific number.

What to look for/how to use: Choose kefir made from nonfat or low-fat milk. Because it’s rather tangy, it may take a little getting used to. You can try flavored kefir, or make a fruit smoothie with fresh fruit. Kefir can be used in place of milk as a beverage, in smoothies, and on cereal. Try making a low-fat, creamy salad dressing with kefir. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even make your own kefir! For more information and recipes, go to

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