Though not a miracle food, yogurt is certainly a nutritional gold mine. Recently we explored some of the truths and misconceptions about yogurt, which is essentially milk fermented with bacteria. Today we'll tell you how to dress it up.
If you're beginning with commercial yogurt, check the label (all of them are dated for freshness) and select the latest date possible. Yogurt made with live cultures will keep in an unopened container in the refrigerator for about 10 days past the freshness date. Pasteurized yogurt will keep even longer. However, when you open the yogurt, make sure it looks and smells fresh.
Although low-fat and nonfat plain yogurt are low in both calories and fat, the fruited varieties can be quite high in calories, even while maintaining a low-fat profile. The jams and fruit concoctions added for flavoring can dump in as much as seven teaspoons of sugar per cup and more than double the calories. When you take up that much space in the container, the beneficial nutrients--such as calcium--are diminished.
Some yogurts are flavored with artificial sweeteners and flavors, which alter the taste but do not markedly increase the calories. Some use artificial colors. Again, read the label.
If you want fruit flavor but are not willing to sacrifice the calcium or add the calories, mix your own chopped fruit into a container of yogurt. You'll get all the calcium listed on the label plus any extra vitamins and fiber the fruit supplies.
If you just want to liven up the flavor of plain yogurt, try adding vanilla, almond or lemon extract, or spice it up with cinnamon, cardamom or ginger. You can even add cocoa powder (sugar will probably be needed as well) to make your own nonfat chocolate-flavored yogurt. Low-fat shakes are easy to make by blending yogurt with fresh or frozen fruit. If you prefer savory to sweet, add scallions, chives, chili, curry, herbs, mustard, salsa or grated vegetables to the yogurt for a dip or to eat as is.
To use yogurt in a hot mixture, bring it to room temperature before adding it, and then just heat it gently until it is warmed through. If you let yogurt boil, it will separate. (Stirring cold yogurt too much will also make it separate.) Heating yogurt to higher than 120 degrees will destroy the beneficial bacteria, although the major nutrients (protein and calcium) will be left untouched. To keep the cultures intact, stir the yogurt into a hot mixture toward the end of the cooking time, and again, just heat it until it is warmed through.
If a yogurt mixture has separated, you can reconstitute it by mixing one teaspoon of cornstarch or two teaspoons of flour with one-half tablespoon cold water for each cup of separated yogurt. Heat it slowly, and stir it constantly until it thickens and recombines.
Last but not least, you can make a good frozen yogurt at home by mixing the yogurt with fruit or any flavorings you like and freezing it for a few hours. Thaw it slightly, and stir it up before serving it.
Dr. Sheldon Margen is a professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. Send questions to Dale Ogar, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Eating Smart appears occasionally in Health.