Unreal Eats is Healthy Living's original video series, where we go behind calorie counts and health claims to examine what's really in the processed foods that scream loudest in our food environment.
Ahh frozen yogurt. With live and active cultures, a "real" yogurt taste, a sprinkle of Fruity Pebbles and some fruit, it's practically a health food ... right? Not so fast.
The summertime favorite, which has evolved into a multi-million dollar business, might not be the innocent treat we like to think it is. Yogurt, by definition, only needs to include curdled milk and cultures, but the cold, hard truth is that many fro yo brands are loaded with hard-to-pronounce ingredients and sugar.
"The fact that there's yogurt in the name in no way exonerates what's in your cup," says David Katz, M.D., founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. "It's not an alternative to yogurt, it's an alternative to ice cream."
Of the six national chains we surveyed for the video above, we came across additives like guar gum, maltodextrin, sodium citrate, cellulose gum, disodium phosphate and propylene glycol monoesters to name just a few don't-sound-like-food ingredients. Some contained carrageenan, a thickening agent derived from red seaweed that has been associated with adverse health effects, albeit hardly conclusive at this point. "The science isn't easy to sort out," says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, of carrageenan. "If it's a worry, it's easily avoided since it's labeled on food packages."
Several of the frozen yogurt cups also contain both artificial and natural ingredients -- the former is chemically made, while the latter comes from some place in nature (though not necessarily something you'd typically think of as food; for example, some natural berry flavors might come from castoreum, an extract from beaver perineal glands).
"There's every reason to think that adding chemicals to foods that aren't really part of food per se has the potential to do some harm," Katz says. "We and food have interacted for all the time we've been on the planet." We've only interacted with chemicals, on the other hand, for a span of decades. While the empirical evidence is limited at this point, he recommends curtailing the consumption of artificial ingredients as a precaution.
"The fact that we don't know something is harmful doesn't prove that it's not," Katz adds. "I often think of [additives] as an indicator that this food has been moved a long way from its place in nature."
But perhaps the bigger problem is that where there's long ingredient lists full of additives and artificial flavors, usually sugar and sodium aren't far behind. Indeed, sugar can be represented by a whole host of sneaky aliases on an ingredient list: fructose, dextrose, corn syrup, juice concentrates, polydextrose and pure cane sugar are all, in a word, sugar.
Ingredients are listed in order of abundance, Katz explains, and while the decision to use certain sweeteners might come down to sourcing or cost reasons, it also could be a clever way for companies to keep sugar from topping the list. "One of the things they'll do is in the same product list sugar by three, four, five different names," he says. "Sugar is sugar and we eat too damn much of it."
So how to make sense of a confusing label? Here's Nestle's rule: "If it has more than five ingredients, or you don’t recognize the ingredient as a food, leave it." Some of the ingredient lists above top 10-plus items -- and that's for the seemingly simple "tart" flavors, not the oh-so-tempting birthday cake variety. And yup, that's before loading on the toppings.
Of course, no one -- even the experts -- is suggesting one forgo the fro yo altogether. Instead, consider it an occasional, portion-controlled dessert, more akin to an ice cream cone than a daily treat.
Camera: Amber Genuske
Editor: Amber Genuske
Reporter: Laura Schocker
Producers: Amber Genuske, Meredith Melnick & Laura Schocker
Assistants: Rachael Grannell, Eva Hill & Cathryn Woodruff