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Sugar in yogurt leaves a sour taste

September 18, 2018

A comprehensive survey of ingredients in yogurts highlights high sugar levels in many - particularly organic yogurts and those marketed towards children.

Scientists from the Universities of Leeds and Surrey analysed the product information for 921 yogurts available in major UK supermarkets.

Their study, published today in BMJ Open, found that across all categories of yogurt products - with the exception of natural, Greek and 'Greek-style' yogurts - the average sugar levels were well above the five grams of sugar per 100 grams threshold required to be classed 'low sugar' and carry a green 'traffic light' nutritional label in the UK.

Apart from products in the dessert category, organic yogurts were found to have the highest average sugar content - roughly 13.1 grams per 100 grams. A standard sugar cube weighs roughly four grams - equivalent to a level teaspoon of granulated sugar.

Lead author Dr Bernadette Moore, from the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds, said: "While there is good evidence that yogurt can be beneficial to health, products on the market vary widely in nutrient content. Items labelled 'organic' are often thought of as the 'healthiest' option, but they may be an unrecognised source of added sugars in many people's diet."

"Many of the products that were suggested for children's lunchboxes were high sugar dessert yogurts, rather than lower sugar options. Retailers could play a positive role in promoting health by establishing boundaries for lunchbox recommendations and clearly labelling the amount of added sugar."

"Our study highlights the challenges and mixed messages that come from the marketing and packaging of yogurt products," she said.

Dr Moore explained that while yogurts contained their own naturally-occurring sugar, called lactose or milk sugar, current UK labelling laws do not require the declaration of added sugars on nutrition labels: 'total sugar' on the package indicates the weight of lactose as well as any added sugars.

The NHS recommends four to six-year-olds should have no more than 19 grams of sugar a day. Only two of 101 children's yogurt and fromage frais products surveyed could be classified as low in sugar, with the majority having an average of 10.8 grams per 100 grams.

Study co-author Dr Barbara Fielding, from the University of Surrey, said: "Diets high in added sugars are now unequivocally linked to obesity and dental problems. An alarming 58% of women and 68% of men - along with one in three of UK children aged ten to eleven - were overweight or obese in 2015.

"In the UK, on average, children eat more yogurt than adults, with children under three years old eating the most. It can be a great source of protein, calcium, and vitamin B12. However, we found that in many of the yogurt products marketed towards children, a single serving could contain close to half of a child's recommended daily maximum sugar intake. Many portion sizes for children's yogurts were identical to adult portion sizes."

The survey examined the sugar and nutrient content of yogurts across eight product categories. Natural, 'plain' and Greek-style yogurts were found to have a dramatically different nutrient profile from all other categories, containing much higher levels of protein, lower carbohydrates level and the least amount of sugar, with the average of five grams per 100g - this was largely naturally-occurring lactose.

As part of a plan to combat childhood obesity, the UK government implemented a soft drinks sugar levy in May and has commissioned a structured programme of monitored sugar reduction as part of a wider plan to tackle calories, salt and saturated fat. Yogurt is one of the products identified and highlighted for a 20% reduction of sugar by 2020.

Study co-author Annabelle Horti, who conducted this research while at the Leeds' School of Food and Nutrition, said: "Changing the public desire for 'sweeter' yogurts may be a real challenge when it comes to reducing its sugar content. In general, consumers' liking for yogurt is often correlated with sweetness.

"Sugar is often used as a sweetener to counteract the natural sourness from the lactic acid produced by live cultures in yogurt. These live cultures - or microorganisms - are what make yogurt a 'good for your gut' food and tend to be found in higher amounts in organic yogurts. This may be why these products had higher amounts of added sugar to offset the sourness.

"Helping people to understand the quantity of sugar that is in their yogurt and its possible ill effects on health may go a long way to smoothing the road for when the sugar is reduced."
-end-
Further information:

  • The survey was conducted across eight categories of yogurt and fromage frais: children's, dairy alternative, dessert, drinks, flavoured, natural/Greek, organic, fruit. There was some heterogeneity within categories, for example organic yogurts included natural/Greek, fruit and flavoured style yogurts provided they were organic.

  • Natural/Greek yogurts had a dramatically different macronutrient profile from all other categories, containing much higher protein (32.4% vs range of 10.8-20%) and much lower carbohydrate (34.7% vs 48.5-60.4%) contents than all other categories.

  • While natural/Greek yogurts contained the least amount of sugars, their median total sugar content (5.0g/100g, largely lactose) was still markedly higher than the allowance of naturally occurring sugars agreed by Public Health England of 3.8g/100g.

  • The paper, 'An evaluation of the nutrient contents of yogurts: a comprehensive survey of yogurt products in the major UK supermarkets' is published in BMJ Open 18 September 2018. (2018;0:e021387. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-021387)

  • The research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for profit sectors.

  • Link to NHS sugar recommendations: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-does-sugar-in-our-diet-affect-our-health/

  • Link to Public Health England: Sugar reduction and wider reformulation programme: Report on progress towards the first 5% reduction and next steps (May 2018) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/709008/Sugar_reduction_progress_report.pdf

For more information or interviews, contact University of Leeds media relations office via pressoffice@leeds.ac.uk or +44(0)113 343 4031.

University of Leeds

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, with more than 33,000 students from more than 150 different countries, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities.

We are a top ten university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and are in the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings 2019. Additionally, the University was awarded a Gold rating by the Government's Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017, recognising its 'consistently outstanding' teaching and learning provision. Twenty-six of our academics have been awarded National Teaching Fellowships - more than any other institution in England, Northern Ireland and Wales - reflecting the excellence of our teaching. http://www.leeds.ac.uk

University of Surrey

The University of Surrey is one of the UK's top higher education institutions and was recognised as the University of the Year in The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2016. With 125 years of academic heritage since our founding in Battersea, and 50 years of world-class teaching and research in Guildford, the University of Surrey is the intellectual home for more than 15,200 students, 100,000 alumni and 2,800 staff.

Freedom of thought, pursuit of academic excellence, and the advancement and application of knowledge underpin the wonderful things happening here. Our mission is to transform lives and enrich society through outstanding teaching and learning, pioneering research and impactful innovation.

The University of Surrey has been recognised by three Queen's Anniversary Prizes for Further and Higher Education and is a destination of choice for higher learning in subjects ranging from Engineering to the Arts. As a global University, we are proud of our strong partnerships with internationally leading institutions and businesses, while being firmly engaged with our local community in Guildford and Surrey. We are committed to educating the next generation of professionals and leaders, and to providing thought leadership and innovation to address global challenges and contribute to a better tomorrow for the world. http://www.surrey.ac.uk

University of Leeds

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