Organic yogurt. Sounds so healthy, doesn’t it? It may not be healthy enough to give your kids on a regular basis. It all depends on what kind you buy, suggests a study published in the British Medical Journal that examined the sugar content of a wide variety of yogurts.

Yogurt is a fermented dairy food that appears to help with digestion and overall health. A good source of “friendly” bacteria or probiotics, yogurt provides important nutrients like protein, calcium, iodine and vitamin B.

People tend to consider yogurt a healthy food without paying particular attention to its sugar content.

Milk and milk products contain a natural form of sugar called lactose. However, many also contain added sugar, and dietary guidelines recommend choosing dairy foods that are low in both fat and sugar. Plain, no-sugar-added yogurt contains five grams of sugar from lactose.

In the United States, “reduced sugar or less sugar” on a food label means that a food contains at least 25 percent less sugar than the same serving size of the regular food, so there's no absolute number; it's all relative and therefore not necessarily meaningful. “Low sugar” is not an approved term for food labels in the US, but in Europe, according to European Union regulations, low sugar refers to foods with less than 5 grams of sugar per 100 gram serving.

The Sugar Content of Supermarket Yogurts

Researchers at the University of Leeds and the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom looked at the sugar content of nearly 900 yogurts and yogurt products found in five supermarket chains. The products were divided into eight categories including children’s yogurt, dessert yogurt, natural or Greek yogurt and organic yogurt.

The average sugar content of all yogurts was well above what is considered “low sugar” except for natural or Greek yogurts. Less than nine percent of the products studied met the criteria for low sugar, and only two percent in the children’s yogurt group did.

Not surprisingly, dessert yogurts contained the most sugar with an average of 16.4 grams per serving, followed by organic yogurts (13.1 grams) and children’s yogurts (10.8 grams). Greek and natural yogurts averaged 5 grams per serving.

Plain, no-sugar-added yogurt contains five grams of sugar from lactose alone.

The amount of added sugar in yogurt may not be as troubling as the sugar in sodas and fruit drinks, but what is concerning is that people generally consider yogurt a healthy food, especially organic yogurt without paying particular attention to its sugar content. Foods labeled as “organic” are especially perceived to be superior. With yogurt, that’s not necessarily true.

Given the childhood obesity crisis and the problem of tooth decay among young children, the issue of added sugar in yogurt is something parents need to be aware of.

Parents, read food labels carefully to determine how much added sugar is in the yogurt you provide your children. Since plain yogurt contains five grams of sugar from lactose, anything above that number is added sugar, except in the case of yogurt with added fruit. The amount of natural sugar (fructose) has to be considered. It can get confusing, so you need to look carefully at the nutritional information on yogurt labels.

The best advice is to avoid yogurts marketed to children as they are likely to contain more sugar, and to avoid fruit-flavored yogurts. Look for those with actual fruit. Better yet, buy plain yogurt and add your own fruit.

If your kids have grown used to yogurts high in sugar, you will probably want to reduce the amount of sugar in their yogurt gradually, so they are more likely to accept it. You might begin by serving fruit-at-the-bottom yogurts in a bowl, leaving more and more of the sugary preserves behind in the bottom of the container over time. Later, you can introduce fruit served with unsweetened yogurt and maybe a little honey or sugar.

The study is published in BMJ.