As I stared into the cavernous yogurt display at a Northern Virginia Costco last weekend, I felt a familiar sting, that terrible sense that I was being controlled by a dairy industry that provisionally believes I am not permitted to eat fat. There was row upon row of nonfat yogurt, and its not-so-sexy cousin, low-fat yogurt, with its tiny extra bits of skim milk often mixed with a sugary sludge of fruit or some sort of breakfast cereal item. They were all inferior a to a luxurious, heavy blob of what the industry likes to call “traditional” yogurt, preferably licked off the back of a large spoon.
Yogurt may seem the odd stuff of food memories, but mine are distinct. I loved digging into tiny glass jars of the stuff in roadside markets in France in college; eating daily small bowls of it mixed with a teaspoon of sugar the winter I lived in Morocco and filling up on protein-rich sykr (which I realize is really yogurt-adjacent) in Iceland to prepare for a day of sitting in hot springs with nearly-naked strangers.
While yogurt remains more popular in other countries, it has served as ground zero for American food trends for decades. Many trace the origins of yogurt to the herdsman of Central Asia centuries ago. Commercial yogurt did not really roll up on our nation’s shores until the 20th century, when it was introduced in part for its health benefits, like calcium, vitamins, and active cultures that aid gut health.
The 1970s ushered in the whole make-your-own yogurt trend, as well as the growth of the yogurt market in the United States as the product became associated with longevity, good health and generally-unproven but genially-embraced overall happiness. (Frozen yogurt has also come in and out of style, often with the involvement of sprinkles, and at times, parking tickets.)
Sometime during the 1980s, when fat became the defined enemy of the medical profession and thus the food industry, the road to yogurtland took some dark turns, increasingly replacing the 3.25 percent milk fat versions of regular yogurt with with products made with less milk fat and often more sugar. Whole milk yogurt, which is far more pleasant on the tongue and gives better structure and flavor to our recipes, often seems to be hiding on the grocery shelf. They're the adult magazines of dairy, daring us to sneak them into the cart.
Yet the low-fat, often cloying versions are very sadly what of many of us tuck into sack lunches, lay out for hotel conference breakfast spreads, and match with a bag of baked potato chips and a somewhat mealy Red Delicious apple to form an entire culinary cairn to what could have been.
But there is evidence we as a nation are recovering.
Light yogurt represents a mere 13 percent share of the overall yogurt category, according to the research firm Nielsen, racking up just over $1 billion in the latest year, a 10 percent decline in dollar sales versus a year ago, while traditional yogurt, which enjoyed $4.2 billion in sales, represents 55 percent of yogurt sales.
“Fat is good and fat is back,” says Hamilton Colwell, the founder of the tiny company Maia Yogurt who ended a career a J.P. Morgan a decade ago to try and come up with a yogurt his pregnant cousin could enjoy. (People have odder reasons for starting businesses, no?) His company’s eight flavors of yogurt are all low fat, but two flavors of traditional full fat will come on board this summer.
“For the last 15 months or so the consumer had been telling us that they crave something that has more fat in us telling us with increasing frequency,” he says. “Fat gives most yogurts adds to the viscosity and gives yogurt the mouthfeel that yogurt was meant to have.”
Amen. Pass the jam.