You might think a pot of yoghurt is good for you, but the sugar content of most supermarket brands is well above recommended healthy levels, warns new research.
And organic products – perceived as ‘healthier’ options – were among some of the worst offenders, according to the findings published by the online journal BMJ Open.
Only two of 101 children’s yoghurt and fromage frais products surveyed could be classified as low in sugar.
And just one in 11 (nine per cent) of more than 900 yoghurt brands tested qualified as low sugar, almost none of which were in the children’s category.
Researchers say the study indicates that yoghurt may be an “unrecognised” source of dietary sugar, particularly for young children, who eat a lot of it.
The evidence suggests that yoghurt and other fermented dairy products aid digestive and overall health.
A good source of ‘friendly’ bacteria, they also contain protein, calcium, iodine and vitamin B.
UK dietary guidelines recommend low fat and low sugar dairy products, and the researchers wanted to assess how far yoghurt products, particularly those marketed to children, meet the guidelines.
British children up to the age of three eat more yoghurt than any other age group.
Scientists from Leeds and Surrey Universities analysed the product information for 921 yoghurts and yoghurt products, which were available from five major UK online supermarket chains. .
All the products were grouped into eight categories: children’s, which included fromage frais; dairy alternatives, such as soy; desserts; drinks; flavoured; fruit; natural/Greek; and organic.
Low fat and low sugar were classified according to European Union regulations, currently used for the front of pack food traffic light labelling system used in the UK: 3 g of fat/100g or less or 1.5 g or less for drinks; and a maximum of 5 g of total sugars/100 g.
The sugar content varied ‘enormously’ both within and across the categories.
But, with the exception of natural/Greek yoghurts, the average sugar content of products in all the categories was well above the low sugar threshold.
Just one in 11 (nine per cent) qualified as low sugar, almost none of which were in the children’s category.
The researchers said their findings are “concerning,” given the rise in childhood obesity and the prevalence of tooth decay among young children.
Unsurprisingly, desserts contained the most total sugar, at an average 16.4 g/100 g, an amount that represents more than 45 per cent of energy intake. These were followed by products in the children’s, flavoured, fruit, and organic categories.
In these categories, total average sugars ranged from 10.8 g/100 g in children’s products to 13.1 g/100 g in organic products. This compares with an average of 5g /100 g for natural/Greek yogurts.
By and large, average fat content was either below or just above the low fat threshold. Desserts had the highest fat content and the broadest range, averaging 5.2 g/100 g.
The researchers said it was an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause, added to which it covered only products sold in five supermarket chains.
But study lead author Dr Bernadette Moore said: “While there is good evidence that yoghurt 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 yoghurts, 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.”
Dr Moore, of Leeds Universty, added: “Our study highlights the challenges and mixed messages that come from the marketing and packaging of yogurt products.”
She explained that while yoghurts 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 yoghurt 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, of Surrey University, said: “Diets high in added sugars are now unequivocally linked to obesity and dental problems.
“An alarming 58 per cent of women and 68 per cent of men – along with one in three of UK children aged 10 to 11 – were overweight or obese in 2015.
“In the UK, on average, children eat more yoghurt 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 yoghurt 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 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.
Yoghurt is one of the products identified and highlighted for a 20 per cent reduction of sugar by 2020.
Study co-author Annabelle Horti added: “Changing the public desire for ‘sweeter’ yoghurts may be a real challenge when it comes to reducing its sugar content. In general, consumers’ liking for yoghurt 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 yoghurt.
“These live cultures – or microorganisms – are what make yoghurt a ‘good for your gut’ food and tend to be found in higher amounts in organic yoghurts. 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 yoghurt and its possible ill effects on health may go a long way to smoothing the road for when the sugar is reduced.”