As nutritious as milk and possibly even more healthful, yogurt is what you get when "good" bacteria feast on fresh milk. These "live active cultures" digest some of the milk’s sugar (lactose), converting into lactic acid, which gives this "spoonable" dairy food a refreshing tang.
Yogurt is not only tasty; it’s easily digested and calcium-rich (1 cup supplies a third or more of daily needs). It’s a good source of protein, zinc, riboflavin, and vitamin B12, and, if made with fortified milk, vitamins A and D. It’s available in low-fat or fat-free varieties. What’s more, there’s evidence that yogurt with live active cultures may prevent intestinal ills and possibly even colon cancer.
Yogurt’s reputation as a health food is centuries old. In the 1500s, the French king Francis I was relieved of intestinal ills when the sultan of Turkey’s doctor arrived with a herd of milk-producing sheep – and a recipe for yogurt.
Yogurt, now made more often from cow’s milk, is one dairy product that many people with lactose intolerance (who suffer bloating, cramps, and diarrhea from ingesting milk, ice cream, or cheese) can eat, since the bacteria reduce the lactose in the milk by as much as two-thirds.
Two cultures used to make yogurt, L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus, die in the stomach. But L. acidophilus, also added to some yogurt, survives digestion and may offer definite health benefits. These "friendly" bacteria may help restore proper digestion during a course of antibiotics, helping to head off such gastrointestinal side effects as diarrhea.
There is even heartening evidence that live-culture acidophilus yogurt may help prevent colon cancer. In older men and women with atrophic gastritis, eating acidophilus yogurt inhibits enzymes that can promote colon cancer. In animals, it slows the growth of colon cancer cells. And at least one study found that eating yogurt daily boosts immunity.
Eating a cup a day of yogurt that contains live L. acidophilus cultures may help prevent vaginal yeast infections. In one study, a daily 1-cup serving over six months reduced recurrent yeast infections threefold. Acidophilus not only produces an environment that repels yeast, but also releases hydrogen peroxide, which halts the growth of other microorganisms.
To do its work, though, yogurt may need more acidophilus than commercial brands supply. The yogurt used in some studies contains as much as 1 billion cultures per gram, but an American study found that seven popular brands had no more than 100,000 cultures per gram. Still, yogurt is nutritious, and if it contains live active cultures – look for this information on the label – including acidophilus, it may offer something more.