You can hardly drive three blocks these days without being tempted by a trendy fro-yo shop. But what's really in your favorite frosty treat? And is it actually a healthy snack? By Kim Tranell, REDBOOK.
It might not even be yogurt
Here's the thing: To be considered yogurt by the National Yogurt Association, fro-yo must contain live and active cultures, a.k.a probiotics-10 million per gram, to be exact. While the most popular chains qualify (to be sure, check their websites for the Live and Active Cultures seal) and typically trend toward more natural ingredients, that fro-yo machine in the corner of your local deli may simply be spitting out glorified soft serve. "Lots of times, it's just low-fat ice cream mixed with a little yogurt-and tons of fillers," says Stephanie Middleberg, RD, a nutritionist in New York City. In fact, you may find everything from artificial protein sources to texturizing agents to dyes in the ingredients. Yikes!
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Even the healthier types aren't superfoods
So those live and active cultures we were just talking about? Some of the healthier fro-yo brands tend to tout the benefits of their probiotics in a major way. Unfortunately, though, "it's a little misleading, especially when they're saying probiotics will help with intestinal problems or boost your immune system," says Paige Einstein, RD, a nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Those claims still need more research." The only 100-percent-proven function of probiotic bacteria is that they can help you digest lactose, making fro-yo a good choice for those who are lactose intolerant.
It's a dessert-not a snack
"Frozen yogurt has a little bit of a health halo effect," says Middleberg. "But its main source of calories is sugar, so it's still a treat-plain and simple." To understand why it's not the best snack choice, all you have to do is check the stats: A half-cup serving of Red Mango has 19 grams of sugar, but just 2 grams of protein and 6 percent of your daily calcium needs. A 1-cup container of plain Fage 0% Greek yogurt, on the other hand, contains just 7 grams of sugar, plus 18 grams of protein and 20 percent of your daily value of calcium. Although if you do opt for the non-fat snack, you absolutely need that solid dose of protein to prevent cravings and keep you satisfied, says Middleberg.
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Serving sizes can be deceiving
Watching your weight? Even if you're savvy enough to check the nutrition info for your favorite fro-yo brand, you may be getting duped, says Einstein. For instance, TCBY lists 90 to 130 calories for a half-cup serving, which it doesn't even sell, and both TCBY and Red Mango call their mediums "regulars." But at two and two-and-a-half times a healthy half-cup serving, respectively, they're anything but normal. The Pinkberry Mini gets it right, or you can just ask for a "kid size" at your local shop-even if it's not on the menu.
Tart doesn't mean unsweetened
Chains like Pinkberry have definitely put plain frozen yogurt, with its typically tart taste, on the map-but plain describes nothing more than the flavor. "I think there's a misconception that plain or tart-called 'original' at many chains-means natural and unsweetened," says Einstein. "But most of the tart varieties still have lots of added sugar." In fact, a half-cup serving of "original" can contain a whopping four teaspoons. That said, tart yogurt is as close to pure as you're going to get, says Middleberg. So if you are trying to eat clean, you'll at least bypass the types of artificial ingredients that are often added for flavoring or color.
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Topping bars can be a good thing
If you're a fro-yo addict, self-serve shops like 16 Handles-where you can mix flavors, pile on endless amounts of chocolate-y toppings, and douse it all in sugary syrups-might register as straight-up danger zones. But Middleberg believes you can use them to your advantage, as long as you exercise a little self-control. Her trick? Flip the order in which you fill up. Load a cup up with fresh fruit-it'll give you the fiber yogurt is missing-then squirt some frozen yogurt on top, kind of like a condiment. Finish with a sprinkle of almonds for extra protein. "It's an opportunity to turn your fro-yo into a healthier, more balanced snack," she says.
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